Wojo: Quinn should lock in Stafford to long-term deal

Bob Wojnowski
The Detroit News

Allen Park — In his first year as Lions GM, Bob Quinn deftly handled the foundation work. He revamped the scouting department. He drafted well. He plugged some holes with understated signings. He stuck with Jim Caldwell and got an unexpected playoff appearance, however brief it was.

Now, the heavier lifting. It should begin where most franchises begin, at quarterback. There’s no sense waiting any longer, and one of Quinn’s major priorities this offseason should be to sign Matthew Stafford to a long-term extension. It’s not an emotional decision after one of Stafford’s finer seasons. It’s a logical business decision. In my mind, it’s an easy decision.

Does Stafford deserve to be the highest-paid player in the NFL, likely with an average salary of $25 million over five years or so? Technically no, and after the next cycle of star contracts, he won’t be. Andrew Luck is the highest-paid right now ($24.6 million annually) and he guided the Colts to an 8-8 record, so he doesn’t “deserve” it either.

Stafford isn’t fully polished and isn’t yet elite, not at 0-3 in the playoffs. And the Lions’ unsightly 5-45 mark the past eight seasons against teams that finished with winning records sits crookedly on his resume. But Stafford, who will be 29 next season, gives the Lions one piece many teams don’t have: A quarterback in his prime who fits the system and the city, a tough-minded, talented leader.

Wait-and-see tack

I already can hear the reaction from some frustrated Lions fans, who wonder why he needs to be signed with a year left on his deal. It’s fair to debate, because Stafford is both prolific and polarizing. And who knows, Quinn might agree it’s best to wait. We should learn more when the GM meets with the media.

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The Lions finished 9-8 with four straight losses. But before injuring the middle finger on his throwing hand, Stafford was having the best season of his career, and finished with his second-highest completion percentage (65.3) and lowest interception total (10). He led the Lions to eight fourth-quarterback comeback victories without anything resembling a running game, and he showed the ability to improve and adapt in Jim Bob Cooter’s offense.

You extend him now, for several reasons. No. 1, you’re not going to find a better option, not in the draft, not in a trade, not in free-agency. Ask the Houston Texans how that four-year, $72-million deal for Brock Osweiler is working out.

If the Lions had a backup ready to step in, things might be different. The Lions have a journeyman (Dan Orlovsky) and a raw rookie (Jake Rudock).

If the Lions had a dominant offensive line that could buy time for a young quarterback, things might be different. That’s what the Cowboys have, a major reason rookie Dak Prescott has been successful.

And finally, this is a big part of it — cost certainty. The Lions are gaining plenty of salary-cap space — as much as $41 million next season —-- as Calvin Johnson’s money and other contracts drop off, and Quinn needs to know how to allocate it. At some point in a five-year extension, Stafford’s cap hit likely would become very reasonable. He’s already on the books for $22 million next season, so a bump to $25 million isn’t excessive.

If you’re confident he’s your quarterback, you do it now. The risk if you don’t outweighs the possible benefit. Could a motivated Stafford play out his contract in stirring fashion? I suppose. The Ravens and Joe Flacco took that gamble in 2012 and won the Super Bowl. Flacco then landed a six-year, $120-million contract, richest in NFL history at the time.

The Lions are not the Ravens. More likely, another season would up the ante without a title, and if the Lions slapped the franchise tag on Stafford, it still would cost about $25 million for one year.

Cradles and other matters

As the Lions cleaned out their lockers this week, Stafford shrugged off contract questions. His wife, Kelly, is due in April with twin girls, so he figures he’ll have a lot on his mind. He said neither he nor his agent has had talks with the Lions about a new deal.

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“It’s not up to me,” Stafford said. “It’s up to the people upstairs, and the Fords, and whether they want to or not.”

I asked if he sees positive signs here, and he didn’t hedge.

“I think we’re young and talented in a lot of key areas, which is a good thing,” Stafford said. “I know what our head coach is all about, I know what our GM is about. I’m just excited about the way this team is moving.”

I know nobody wants to hear it again, but Stafford still needs help at key positions. The Lions have followed that mantra for years, but previous incompetent administrations didn’t get it done. And no sugar-coating, Stafford didn’t get it done either. He is not — nor ever will be — Aaron Rodgers, Tom Brady or Ben Roethlisberger, so stop pining for that.

This is a team without a single player in the Pro Bowl. This is a team that beefed up its receiving corps after losing Johnson, and in the 26-6 playoff loss to Seattle, dropped passes were devastating. Golden Tate struggled early in the season, then excelled later. Marvin Jones excelled early, then struggled later. You still never know what you’re getting from tight end Eric Ebron.

By the end, Zach Zenner was pretty much the Lions’ only running back. That could change internally, when Ameer Abdullah and Theo Riddick return from injury. But whether it comes from inside or outside, the Lions desperately need more playmakers, on offense and defense.

Restocking the defense is another huge priority, and that includes a possible extension for Ziggy Ansah. Quinn has shown promise as a first-time GM, with each of his 10 draft picks making the roster, including talented left tackle Taylor Decker. But when you watch them stagger down the stretch against superior teams, you wonder how many assets they truly have.

They have Decker and potential stars in Ansah and Darius Slay. They have Quinn and growing flexibility. According to Overthecap.com, the Lions would have the most salary-cap space in the league in 2018, based on current contracts.

The Lions also have their best quarterback in 60 years, which isn’t the main reason you lock him up long term. “Best Lions quarterback” is faint praise indeed. You extend Stafford because you don’t play games with the face of your franchise, not when you have so many other games to play and needs to fill.

bob.wojnowski@detroitnews.com

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