News & Analysis

Rams trade Jared Goff, two first-round picks to Lions for Matthew Stafford

Jan 16, 2021; Green Bay, Wisconsin, USA; Los Angeles Rams quarterback Jared Goff (16) against Green Bay Packers during the NFC Divisional Round at Lambeau Field. Mandatory Credit: Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

The Los Angeles Rams are shipping two future first-round picks, a third-round pick and quarterback Jared Goff to the Detroit Lions for longtime starter Matthew Stafford, ESPN’s Adam Schefter announced on Saturday night.

The Lions fired both their head coach and general manager following a 5-11 2020 campaign and replaced them with Dan Campbell and Brad Holmes, respectively. Holmes, a former member of the Rams front office, might have played a minor role in this move.

However, the declining play of Jared Goff likely played the major role. After leading the Rams to the Super Bowl just two years ago, the former No. 1 overall pick out of Cal earned only 1.94 wins above replacement (15th) in 2019 and 1.13 wins above replacement (19th) in 2020, combining one of the lowest average depths of target (6.9, 40th among QBs with 100 or more passing snaps) with an above-average number of turnover-worthy plays (18). He was healthy enough to dress against the Seattle Seahawks in the wild-card round of the playoffs in 2020 but was sat in favor of AAF star John Wolford. Goff now heads to Detroit to work with Anthony Lynn as an offensive coordinator.

After dropping multiple first-round picks to acquire Goff’s draft pick in the first place, and then again to trade for superstar cornerback Jalen Ramsey, the Rams have now emptied the chamber for a third time, now for Matthew Stafford, who has three top-10 WAR seasons since being drafted by Detroit with the first overall pick in the 2009 NFL Draft.

Rams general manager Les Snead made it clear at his season-ending press conference that the team was willing to move on from Jared Goff’s contract if they could upgrade at the position. They have done just that in acquiring the longtime Lions starter. Stafford was the 12th-most valuable player in football last season, throwing the eighth-most big-time throws (32) among all quarterbacks. His 10.1-yard average depth of target was the third-highest in football, though he finished 10th in yards per attempt. He now gets to work with an elite offensive mind for the first time in his career, pairing with Sean McVay in L.A.

Many felt the Lions would look to stockpile draft picks, perhaps trade up for one of Zach Wilson or Justin Fields, and then bottom-out for a year in 2021 while they underwent a full rebuild. But while the Lions will absorb the large contract that will come along with Goff, taking on his salary likely increased the total package of draft picks, which is a smart idea from the Lions GM.

The beauty of Holmes being in his first year as the Lions' general manager is that he was willing to take future first-round picks as the main assets in return. General managers are generally less inclined to do so if there’s a mandate to win now, but clearly Holmes has time to turn things around in the Motor City. And in reality, there isn’t a time-value on draft picks. Given that there won’t be an NFL scouting combine in 2021, Holmes acquired picks that will fall in drafts that include players for whom they will have much more knowledge about, both on and off the field.

The Rams have not made a first-round selection since trading up to take Goff at No. 1 overall in 2016, and they will expand that streak to seven years running, through at least 2023. Trading Goff leaves them with a dead cap hit of $22.2 million for 2021, but the Rams are also not afraid to incur dead cap to improve their team. That $22.2 million is now the record for the largest single-year dead cap charge for one player, beating the record the Rams set last offseason when they traded Brandin Cooks to the Houston Texans in a move that left them with $21.8 million in dead money.

Los Angeles also released Todd Gurley II and incurred $20.15 million in dead money, which they elected to spread out over the 2020-21 seasons. Long story short, owner Stan Kroenke and the Les Snead-led front office do not allow the salary cap to be a constraint when it comes to improving their football team.

Goff was set to count $34.95 million against the Rams' 2021 cap prior to the trade, and Stafford’s current contract will now count $20 million against the cap for Los Angeles. Add that $20 million to Goff’s $22.2 million dead cap charge ($42.2 million total), and L.A. is really only adding $7 million at the quarterback position in terms of cap space. There’s probably a decent chance an extension is incoming for Stafford anyway.

The soon-to-be-former Lion has just 2021 and 2022 remaining on the extension he signed with Detroit back in 2017, and none of that money is guaranteed. Expect the Rams to explore an extension (officially) when the 2021 league year begins on March 17.

Stafford will be just 33 years old during the 2021 season, and as we’ve seen across the NFL with Tom Brady and others, he could have at least five years of good football still left in him. A big upgrade along the offensive line, and now playing with one of the best offensive minds in football in Sean McVay, Stafford will look to replicate the career resurgence that his old NFC North foe Aaron Rodgers has experienced in Green Bay under McVay protégé Matt LaFleur.

From the Lions' perspective, Stafford leaves behind a $19 million dead cap charge while Jared Goff brings with him a $25.65 million base salary and is owed a $2.5 million roster bonus on March 19. Perhaps Detroit will also look to restructure Goff’s contract upon arrival, but for now they’re set to allocate $47.15 million between the two.

With the 2021 salary cap expected to be around $180 million, both clubs are spending well over 20% of that cap on their new franchise quarterbacks, as well as the financial penalty left behind. More cap maneuvering will be necessary for both, with the Rams currently projected to be about $34.5 million over a hypothetical $180 million cap, per contract numbers from Over the Cap. The Lions are now projected to be about $8.5 million over the hypothetical $180 million salary cap.

The Rams were already going with something of a “super team” approach, with Aaron Donald and Jalen Ramsey both making $20 million per year on defense, two relatively expensive tackles and wide receivers and then a host of rookie contracts and low-cost deals around them. One impact this trade may have on the Rams is that it will make it even harder to retain safety John Johnson III (89.0 overall grade in 2020, fifth among safeties) as well as edge rusher Leonard Floyd.

An interesting historical note from a trade-value perspective: the package here is almost identical to the 2009 trade between the Denver Broncos and Chicago Bears for Jay Cutler. Cutler was sent to Chicago in exchange for two first-round picks, a third-round pick and QB Kyle Orton. And while the financial situations of the respective quarterbacks were different, it’s certainly possible this deal provided a benchmark for the Lions and Rams.

It’s hard to look at this deal and think that the Detroit Lions have not come out ahead. The Rams’ supporting cast, excellent early in the McVay/Goff marriage, has atrophied some over the past few years, which has led to Goff’s decline. The defense, the league’s best in 2020, lost its coordinator this offseason when Brandon Staley moved across town to be with the Chargers. The situation that Stafford falls into, while better than the one he had in Detroit, might not yield the results that this trade implies it will. The betting markets appear to be betting into Los Angeles as a result of this move, but we would be inclined to take the other side if offered.

Meanwhile, this is a rebuild for Detroit, and Goff is a bridge for them to theoretically be competitive in an NFC North where both Chicago and Minnesota are rudderless and Green Bay will eventually jettison Hall of Fame quarterback Aaron Rodgers. That said, his decline in play has been palpable, meaning Detroit’s search for a quarterback cannot end here and might start again with the seventh pick in April’s draft.

A question remains about what this deal, and subsequent QB deals, means about Deshaun Watson, who has scrubbed all mention of the Houston Texans from his social media accounts and has requested a trade. If Stafford can go for this much, what does Watson garner in a deal?

Know tomorrow, today. Western Southern Financial Group.
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