Allen Park — Just because they haven’t done it before doesn’t mean they can’t do it now.
Building a championship-caliber team around the NFL’s highest-paid player won’t be easy. But after handing Matthew Stafford a record-setting contract before the season began, the Lions don’t have a choice.
And though it might seem like a difficult chore — an impossible one, some argue — Bob Quinn seems to understand it’s the price of doing business in today’s NFL.
“Yeah, absolutely,” said Quinn, the Lions’ second-year general manager. “(But) there’s more money to go around. And it’s my job and the scouting department’s job and our contract people’s job to make everything fit and field the most competitive team that we can. … We still have more room to grow.”
And by that he means organically, wherever possible, with last year’s Super Bowl matchup offering a template, of sorts.
Last year’s NFC champs, the Atlanta Falcons, were a relatively young bunch, with 10 homegrown starters in Super Bowl 51 that were culled from their three most recent draft classes. Four of those starters, in fact, were rookies.
But even the New England Patriots — a team Quinn helped construct — were counting on a similar infusion of inexpensive, young talent. Ten of New England’s starters in the title game were still playing on their rookie contracts, including six on the defensive side. That doesn’t even include James White, the all-purpose back who played a starring role with three touchdowns in the Patriots’ comeback win.
The Lions have a long way to go to get there, obviously. And no one need remind Quinn that this franchise — six decades removed from its last NFL championship — has never been there at all.
But it’s worth noting half of the Lions’ starters Sunday in the season-opening win over the Arizona Cardinals were players still on their rookie contracts. There also were eight rookies in uniform in Detroit, and 15 players from Quinn’s first two draft classes that were active for the game.
First order of business
That number doesn’t include last year’s rookie first-round pick, Taylor Decker, but it did account for this year’s top selection, Jarrad Davis, who became the first Lions rookie to start at middle linebacker in an opener since Chris Spielman in 1988. Davis played all 75 defensive snaps Sunday and finished with a team-high nine tackles.
Other highlights: rookie third-round pick Kenny Golladay, who became the first Lions rookie receiver since 2003 (Charles Rogers) to catch two touchdown passes in an opener; second-year safety Miles Killebrew, who made a critical third-down stop early and then sealed the win with a pick-six; second-year defensive end Anthony Zettel, who had a sack, a tackle for loss and a handful of quarterback pressures; and second-year defensive tackle A’Shawn Robinson, who forced a crucial third-quarter fumble that Davis nearly returned for a touchdown.
“It always helps when you’ve got young guys that can come in and contribute as much as we’ve had here in the last couple years,” Lions head coach Jim Caldwell said.
It’s not merely helpful, though. It’s a necessity, and Quinn knows it. And while the Lions did a better overall job drafting under Martin Mayhew than they did under his predecessor, Matt Millen, there still were too many droughts (2011, ’12, ’15) to build the kind of depth the best teams rely on in the NFL.
“I’ve got to do a good job in the draft. first and foremost,” Quinn said. “We can’t be going into free agency every season being a top spender, that’s just not reasonable. That’s not how you build teams the right way.”
Yet before you build a straw-man argument from all the zeros in Stafford’s contract, it’d help to put it in perspective. Sure, Stafford’s five-year, $135 million extension looks unwieldy at face value, with salary-cap hits that reach $30 million in the middle of it.
But one look at the NFL’s current revenue stream tells you that’s not as rich as it sounds. The NFL’s salary cap has risen by $10 million or more in each of the last four years, climbing steadily from $120 million in 2011 to $167 million this season.
Assuming similar growth, Stafford’s contract will account for no more than 14-16 percent of the Lions’ cap throughout his new deal. And his won’t be the only one in that category, not with new deals coming soon for the likes of Matt Ryan, Aaron Rodgers, Drew Brees, Kirk Cousins and Sam Bradford.
In fact, if you ask Stafford’s high-powered agent, Tom Condon, about that trend, as Andrew Brandt, a former agent and NFL executive with the Green Bay Packers did on his podcast this week, you’ll get a blunt answer.
The notion that you can’t build a winner with that much invested in a quarterback?
“I think that’s a myth,” Condon said.
Condon has a vested interest himself, obviously. He represents Ryan, Brees and Bradford, among other high-profile clients. But he also was Peyton Manning’s agent throughout his career, including those prime years in Indianapolis when the Colts managed to build a perennial contender around Manning despite a top-heavy payroll.
Really, you could see this day coming ever since, as the NFL purposefully shifted more and more responsibility — and value — into quarterbacks’ hands. Rule changes designed to protect passers and increase scoring have placed a premium on a handful of positions: quarterbacks, left tackles, receivers, pass rushers and cover corners.
And since the QB has his fingerprints on every offensive play, the end result, in terms of negotiating leverage, “is it’s hard to overpay the franchise quarterback,” Condon said.
It’s also relatively easy to manipulate the salary cap, despite what some NFL executives would have their fans believe. (Nearly two-thirds of the league’s 32 teams had more than $5 million in unused 2016 cap room to carry over into this season.)
The Lions certainly were guilty of that in the past, though to be fair they also were forced to pay huge premiums for top draft picks like Stafford, Calvin Johnson and Ndamukong Suh before the rookie wage scale was implemented in 2011. (Those three accounted for nearly 40 percent of the team’s cap in 2014.)
That’s no longer the case, though, and if they’re ever going to strike it rich as a franchise, they’ll need Stafford playing at an elite level, just as Ryan did last year. But then they’ll need something more — a lot more, at a discounted price — and it’s Quinn’s job to find it.