How Brad Holmes and Detroit Lions became early winners in NFL's chaotic quarterback market

Dave Birkett
Detroit Free Press

Carson Wentz is on the trade market. Sam Darnold might join him. Aaron Rodgers sent smoke signals that not all is right in Green Bay. Russell Wilson caused his own five-alarm fire in Seattle. And who knows how things shake out with Deshaun Watson.

This offseason could feature unprecedented quarterback turnover, one year after last offseason saw never-before-seen movement at the position: The greatest player in NFL history, Tom Brady, left a dynasty in New England to win a Super Bowl with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, and his old team replaced him with an ex-MVP (Cam Newton) who sat on the market most of the summer while another potential future Hall-of-Famer (Philip Rivers) relocated to his own new zip code.

In some ways, we are seeing the NBA-ification of the NFL; talented stars can force their way out of bad situations and go chase a championship.

Houston Texans quarterback Deshaun Watson avoids the tackle of Detroit Lions defensive end Romeo Okwara during the first quarter of an exhibition game at NRG Stadium, Aug. 17, 2019 in Houston.

Sometimes it happens with animus, as seems to be the case in Houston, where Watson understandably does not want to spend his prime years with the league’s most dysfunctional franchise.

Sometimes it happens peacefully, as was the case in Detroit, where Matthew Stafford asked for and was granted his trade request after 12 middling seasons with the Lions.

The further away we get from that trade, the more it seems that the Lions as an organization and new general manager Brad Holmes, in particular, played perfectly what admittedly was a strong hand.

Holmes extracted maximum value in the trade, receiving three draft picks — a third-rounder this year and future first-round selections in 2022-23 — plus a serviceable but expensive young quarterback in Jared Goff for an above-average player in Stafford, whose window of opportunity does not coincide with where the Lions are as a team.

More importantly, Holmes made the deal quickly. And while it will not be consummated officially until the start of the new league year next month, Holmes wisely created urgency to run up the price while simultaneously beating the flood of quarterbacks who could come on the market — a flood with ramifications that will affect the Lions again.

Wentz appears to be the next quarterback most likely to be dealt, if only because the Eagles have had their fill of the No. 2 pick of the 2016 draft, whereas the Houston Texans (with Watson), Green Bay Packers (with Rodgers) and Seattle Seahawks (with Wilson) still hope their situations are salvageable.

Detroit Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford congratulates the defense during the fourth quarter against the Arizona Cardinals in the season opener, Sunday, Sept. 10, 2017 at Ford Field.

The Eagles have the No. 6 pick of the draft, and though they spent a second-rounder on Jalen Hurts last spring, dealing Wentz could put them in the quarterback market again come draft day.

It makes sense for the Eagles to consider a Wentz replacement at No. 6 in what is shaping up to be a strong quarterback draft. Clemson’s Trevor Lawrence will go No. 1 overall and as many as five other quarterbacks could go in Round 1, including Ohio State’s Justin Fields, BYU’s Zach Wilson and North Dakota State’s Trey Lance in the top 10.

For the Lions, that’s where the waiting game comes in.

Since the Lions already have committed to a long-term rebuild by taking L.A.’s offer over the one I would have preferred — the No. 8 pick in this year’s draft from the Carolina Panthers, plus a middle-rounder, plus quarterback Teddy Bridgewater — their best play is to see the long game through.

That means either drafting a young, raw quarterback like Lance, who needs seasoning to reach his enormous potential, or trading down from the No. 7 spot to acquire more picks (either this spring or, even better, in future years) with which to rebuild.

The Jacksonville Jaguars are a lock to take Lawrence at No. 1. Whoever holds the No. 2 pick, the Jets if they trade Darnold or perhaps the Texans if they capitulate and send Watson to New York, could be in the quarterback market, too.

The Miami Dolphins at No. 3 seem unlikely quarterback suitors, unless they’ve soured on Tua Tagovailoa after one year or get in the Watson market themselves.

The Atlanta Falcons at No. 4 need an heir apparent to Matt Ryan, soon to be 36, though people in the know do not believe owner Arthur Blank wants a rebuild.  

And while the Cincinnati Bengals are the only top-five team that absolutely will not draft a quarterback, the team the Lions really must keep an eye these next five weeks is the Carolina Panthers at No. 8.

Rams quarterback Jared Goff hands the ball off against the Chiefs at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum, Nov. 19, 2018.

The Lions’ best chance to trade down and pick up another boatload of draft picks is to find a team that wants to leapfrog the Panthers for a quarterback. Carolina is desperately in the quarterback market, as its pursuit of Stafford made clear, and if the Panthers fill their need with a trade in the next five weeks, Holmes suddenly will have far less bargaining power.

That’s a dizzying case of connect the dots, but that’s where we are in the NFL; just about everyone seems to be looking for an upgrade at the most important position — and some top-tier quarterbacks are looking to play with an upgraded supporting cast.

By my count, just 11 quarterbacks are entrenched with their teams (and by entrenched, with few exceptions, I mean for 2021 only): Brady, Patrick Mahomes, Josh Allen, Justin Herbert, Lamar Jackson, Kyler Murray, Baker Mayfield, Joe Burrow, Ryan Tannehill, Lawrence (even though he’s not yet officially on a team) and Stafford.

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That leaves 21 teams potentially in the market for some type of signal caller, a high-draft-pick rookie, proven vet or young reclamation project. Many of those teams, should they acquire a new one, would then have their own quarterback to offload.

The Lions are planning for Goff to be their starter in 2021, but if we’re being realistic, their window for contention is further down the road. 

Dan Campbell said as much, and Holmes reaffirmed that with the Stafford trade.

The Lions are stockpiling the ammunition necessary to be a future force, in the draft and on the field. Some of those mortars will turn out to be duds, as is always the case in the NFL.

That’s why it’s imperative for the Lions to horde more this offseason, and why all eyes the next few months will be on not only their quarterback situation but what happens at the position all around the league.

Contact Dave Birkett at dbirkett@freepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @davebirkett.