The first order of business for the Detroit Lions, once the season ends, will be hiring a General Manager and a head coach. The second order of business for the Lions — and the first order of business for the new G.M. and coach — will be to make a decision on quarterback Matthew Stafford.
On the fifth day of the 2021 league year, which tentatively begins on March 21, Stafford will earn a $10 million roster bonus. So if the Lions are going to trade or cut Stafford, $10 million hinges on the decision coming before then.
Stafford has a $9.5 million base salary and a $500,000 workout bonus, pushing his total compensation for 2021 to $20 million. The fact that half of the money comes due so early forces a quick decision by the Lions, preventing them from keeping Stafford and his family in limbo. It’s a smart term that often doesn’t appear in the out years of a veteran contract, but definitely should. In Stafford’s case, it will give him clarity early in the annual offseason game of musical chairs.
Trading Stafford would avoid the $20 million in cash and cap obligation for 2021, but it would trigger a $24.85 million cap charge for 2021. Cutting him with a post-June 1 designation eventually would spread the consequences over two years, with $14.95 million landing in 2021 and the remaining $9.9 million hitting in 2022.
Keeping Stafford without any type of restructuring or extension will mean a $34.95 million cap charge for Stafford in 2020.
Thus, whatever the Lions do, it’s going to create a cap issue, and if they keep Stafford there also will be a cash issue. The fact that moving Stafford saves $20 million on the heels of a season with reduced revenues due to the pandemic could make it very tempting to cut and run on the balance of Stafford’s contract.
Another factor in the overall conversation will be Stafford’s wishes. If he doesn’t want to stay with the next new regime in Detroit (or if his wife just wants out of Michigan altogether), that will be a factor in whether the Lions would pay so much to keep him around.
Some will say that the Lions should keep Stafford because no good alternatives exist. It’s too early to know, however, which quarterbacks will be available via free agency or trade. There also will be a new crop of quarterbacks in the draft. And even if the Lions can’t acquire a quarterback who’ll win a playoff game, well, they haven’t had one of those since January 1992, when Stafford was three years old.