Wojo: From Stafford to Slay, Lions as perplexing as ever

Bob Wojnowski
The Detroit News

Detroit – When rumors swirl, the line blurs between fact and friction. The Lions never were shopping Matthew Stafford, according to Bob Quinn and Matt Patricia, and the quarterback doesn’t want to be shopped, according to Stafford’s agent and Stafford’s wife. This is contrary to what Kelly Stafford had previously hinted on social media, and contrary to trade rumors out of the NFL Combine. But the speculation was debunked by all parties, so that settles that, whatever that was.

Matthew Stafford

It’s over, and coincidentally, it’s just getting started. Hang on, because free-agency opens March 18 and the draft follows on April 23, and with the No. 3 pick, the Lions hold the key to unlocking the draft’s mystery. Three prospects generally are considered the best – LSU quarterback Joe Burrow, Alabama quarterback Tua Tagovailoa, Ohio State defensive end Chase Young – and the Lions have a multitude of options, including a trade.

This is the best time of year for Lions fans, also known as the worst time of year, because teams aren’t built on conjecture and fanciful trade ideas. From the outside, the Lions are a puddle of contradictions and conundrums. This is not unusual in the offseason, except that the GM and head coach are under increasing pressure, which makes the next two or three major decisions potentially career-altering.

This is not just about Stafford or Tagovailoa, or whether Ohio State cornerback Jeff Okudah or Auburn defensive tackle Derrick Brown make more sense at No. 3. It’s about the team’s direction, which remains poorly defined.

For instance, Quinn said the Lions are “exploring” a trade of Darius Slay, arguably their best defensive player, which seems to contradict a “win-now” edict that may or may not actually exist. Martha Ford’s statement Dec. 17 set an expectation for the Lions to be a “playoff contender” in 2020, which sounds more like a “win-a-bit-more” edict after going 3-12-1.

The Lions’ objectives for the present and future have never been in greater conflict. Slay, 29, is a top cornerback entering the final year of his contract and isn’t bashful about seeking a raise or speaking his mind. Logically, if the Lions want to improve a defense ranked 31st, they’d keep one of their few stalwarts. Naturally, it’s not that simple, and the reasons could be prudent or dumb.

Quinntricia can’t be patient or arrogant, not if their job status is legitimately in danger. But again, the conflict. It’d be prudent for the future to trade Slay, before he hits 30 with a hefty contract. It’d be dumb if they traded him because he didn’t fit their culture or scheme, which aren’t remotely strong enough to supersede talent.

Too much scatter-shooting

But that’s been the pattern with this regime. We’ve given them credit for preaching discipline and trying to stick to a plan that worked elsewhere, but they’ve delivered no tangible results.

I’d try to keep Slay because it’s unlikely they’d get a first-round pick for him, and he might perform better in a contract year. But Quinn seems intent on dealing him, even though the reason Patricia is here -- to build a defense -- is trending to be his downfall.

Darius Slay

Even when the Lions find players that seemingly fit, dissension simmers. Quinn traded popular safety Quandre Diggs one year after extending his contract. He recently released defensive tackle Damon “Snacks” Harrison after extending his contract. Harrison’s play fell off, but at 31, he likely retains some short-term value.

They’re taking a different tact with Slay, who didn’t get an extension. They also seem prepared to move on from defensive tackle A’Shawn Robinson, a second-round pick in 2016, who at times showed promise at a position of great need.

There’s been too much scatter-shooting while crafting a 9-22-1 record in two years. Golden Tate was traded, which made sense for the future, but left Stafford with virtually no receivers that season. Guard Graham Glasgow, a third-round pick in 2016, has been versatile and durable, but is about to hit the open market and the Lions strangely seem willing to let him go.

Again, the conflict between current gains and future hopes is troubling, muddied by an edict that’s vague enough to interpret as you wish. This looks like a team primed for a rebuild, which was never supposed to be the plan. And frankly, Quinntricia can’t afford to do it now. Nor should they be given the leeway to buy more time.

Tua's still the talk

That’s probably the main reason the quarterback rumors were adamantly squashed. Based on Stafford’s contract and long-standing role as the face of the franchise, I don’t think the Lions have seriously considered trading him. Quinn -- “100 percent false” -- and Patricia -- “comical” -- have taken turns laughing it off. There’s no reason for them to be bluffing because they actually gain more leverage if they’re open to a move.

But there’s also no denying signs of frustration from the Stafford side. Three weeks ago, Kelly Stafford reacted on Instagram to a story about trade rumors with the statement, “Well, if Detroit is done with us … I could stay in Cali.” That sparked a local TV report that insisted the Lions were discussing trades for Stafford, which sparked the first round of Quinntricia denials.

Then the NFL Network’s Michael Silver said last Friday that some in the league believe Stafford wants out. That led to more denials, led by Stafford’s agent, Tom Condon, who told Silver the quarterback wants to stay. Finally, Kelly Stafford capped the week by basically confirming it on Instagram, writing “He loves Detroit and the Lions organization” under the caption “We ain’t goin’ nowhere.”

Maybe this is much ado about nothing -- or about a little something. Stafford is a good (not elite) quarterback who deserves better, but never has pushed for it. On the blame scale for the Lions’ mediocrity, he’s way down the list, and was playing well in Darrell Bevell’s new system. But he’s also 32, coming off back-to-back back injuries, and it’s perfectly reasonable to think, after 11 seasons here, he might wonder if this regime has any idea how to fix it.

That’s why the Tua talk persists, and for what it’s worth, oddsmakers rank the Lions and Dolphins as most likely to draft him. There’s logic to it, but perhaps not Lions logic. Tagovailoa was pegged to become a superstar before his serious hip injury, which reportedly is healing well. He says he’s willing to sit behind a veteran for his first season, and hey, the Lions have a veteran quarterback who always, virtually to a fault, has been a respectful team guy.

If Tagovailoa’s medicals continue to check out, I think it’s a risk to pass on him at No. 3, the type of move that could haunt for a decade. I’d take him and figure it out, or at least give the appearance of wanting him to increase the potential trade haul from a team like the Dolphins or Chargers.

The Lions have a lot of issues at a lot of positions, and difficult decisions ahead. That’s why rumors swirl more than ever. As always, you can only hope they make the right moves, and more important, make them for the right reasons.

bob.wojnowski@detroitnews.com

Twitter: @bobwojnowski