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Wojo: Matthew Stafford a must-keep for Lions

Bob Wojnowski
The Detroit News

Allen Park — Matthew Stafford has a lot to handle these days as a quarterback, husband, father and face of a franchise. He has two new bundles of responsibility in recently born twin daughters Sawyer and Chandler. And he soon might add another big bundle of responsibility as, potentially, the highest-paid player in the NFL.

A lot has changed, or is about to change, for Stafford, and we’re not just talking about the diaper duty. At 29, after eight seasons with the Lions, he’s starting the transition from carefree young guy to family man and businessman, entering the prime of his career. And his next move could define him.

It certainly will define the Lions’ direction under second-year GM Bob Quinn. By all accounts, Quinn wants to sign Stafford long term, preferably before the contract expires after this season. By all accounts, Stafford wants to stay, and negotiations are under way.

There’s plenty of time to seal the deal and I think they’ll get it done, as they should. To me, it’s not even a debate. Stafford’s occasional on-field recklessness has smoothed out, and before he injured the middle finger on his throwing hand last December, he was having a brilliant season, leading the Lions to the playoffs for the second time in three years. Look around the league at quarterback-starved teams and you’ll see why the Lions don’t have a choice, unless they want to start completely over.

Both sides have adopted a don’t-sweat-it approach — for now.

Lions’ Matthew Stafford on contract talks: What, me worry?

Until a contract is signed, there will be speculation, and that’s an incentive to get it done soon. You don’t want to get stuck in a mess like Washington has with Kirk Cousins, failing to reach an agreement and using the expensive franchise tag twice.

No worries

Stafford said it doesn’t matter to him if a contract is done before or during the season, but how can it not? In the brutal NFL, a player generally only gambles on himself to reach free-agency if a huge reward is possible. Stafford’s huge reward probably already is available, a contract that would top the current most-lucrative — a six-year, $140-million deal signed by Colts quarterback Andrew Luck last June.

“If that stuff’s gonna get done, it’s gonna get done,” Stafford said Tuesday. “If it’s not, it’s not. Can’t really worry about it too much, that’s why I have an agent.”

Would he like to be here for a long time?

“I’d love to,” he said. “I’ve had a really good time playing here, and I’d like to be here long term, but that’s yet to be seen.”

If you’re wondering why a quarterback who hasn’t won a playoff game could automatically become the highest-paid player in the league, it’s all about timing. Luck isn’t the best player in the league, but the Colts had no choice. And the next good quarterback who nears the end of his deal will top whatever Stafford gets.

One lesson here: Let your babies grow up to be quarterbacks.

Stafford says finger is fine, 'just needed rest'

“You look across the country and there’s really a lack of quarterbacks, when you look at the NFL and college football,” Quinn said last week. “So I think we’re in a fortunate situation to have Matthew as a member of our team, and we’re hoping to make that a long-term thing.”

No discount

Quinn used his first season as GM to evaluate Stafford and Jim Caldwell, and when the Lions were 9-4 and in first place, committing to both made sense. Then came the injuries and the collapse, capped by a 26-6 loss to the Seahawks in a wild-card playoff game.

Stafford said it took another month for the finger to heal, but required no surgery and is fine now. In fact, as he stood at the podium Tuesday, everything seemed perfectly fine. His wife, Kelly, gave birth on March 31 and Stafford called fatherhood “awesome.”

“It’s been life-changing, obviously,” he said. “Your world revolves around them. But it’s fun.”

Stafford doesn’t often delve deeply into his emotions, although that has started to change. He has been more vocal and demonstrative on the field, and is an unquestioned leader in the locker room. He’s also one of the longest-tenured Lions, although tenure and age aren’t exactly the same thing.

When your inquisitive columnist asked Stafford about getting older as the clock ticks, he laughed.

“I don’t know that I’m past the midway point (of his career), I want to play for a long time,” he said. “I know what you’re saying, just being the oldest guy in the (quarterback) room, and I’ve been here about as long as anybody except (long-snapper Don) Muhlbach. My role is changing for sure, just growing into that leadership role.”

A lot of growing has gone on since we last saw the Lions. Most important, they grew bigger on the offensive line with two free-agent coups — Ricky Wagner and T.J. Lang.

Now, according to Quinn, the Lions are in the “very early stages” of talks with Stafford’s agent. Does “very early” suggest it will be a protracted negotiation? It could mean Quinn is leaning on his background with the Patriots, a franchise that doesn’t overpay its stars. After years of salary-cap turmoil, the Lions are wise to be as prudent as possible, although few players ever take a “hometown discount.”

“Every year, teams find ways to put good teams around a good quarterback,” Stafford said. “I’m not too worried about that. I know salary caps are as malleable as you want them to be.”

The malleability will be tested. The Lions would prefer to be more balanced — offense and defense, running and passing — which breeds more consistency. But until that happens, they’ll likely hand a bundle to their quarterback, and hope he keeps growing.