In the NFL, there's nothing more valuable than a difference-making quarterback.
That was underscored again when the Detroit Lions signed quarterback Matthew Stafford to a three-year, $53 million contract extension. According to Mike Florio of Pro Football Talk, the total value of his deal over the next five years is now $76.5 million, $43 million of which is guaranteed.
While eight-digit contract values sound enormous to the ears of regular folks, Stafford's contract doesn't blow out the curve. In fact, according to Spotrac.com, the average annual value of the deal doesn't break him into the top five of NFL quarterbacks.
Make no mistake, that's still big money. Stafford had one of the last huge rookie deals, and (managed properly) this second contract will set his great-grandchildren up for life.
The Lions, meanwhile, did well to cement the 2009 No. 1 overall pick as their starter for the foreseeable future. There will be no franchise-tagging, holdouts or last-minute brinkmanship with the cornerstone of the team.
Both the Lions and Stafford now have security.
Did they pass up an opportunity?
Stafford turned 25 years old in February. Despite being a four-year veteran starter with 12,807 career passing yards, he's barely older than Oakland Raiders rookie Tyler Wilson, who'll turn 24 this August.
Stafford is primed to re-write the Lions' record book this season. Already their all-time leader in completions, per Pro Football Reference, he will likely top Bobby Layne in attempts and yards by the end of the year. The 39 touchdowns he would need to sweep the major career passing stats wouldn't even be a personal best (41 in 2011).
Stafford is the most talented passer in Lions history. If he plays out the rest of this contract, he could be the greatest quarterback in Lions history (and still only 30 years old).
The NFL, though, isn't a one-team league.
There are 31 other teams out there, and if they wouldn't dream of guaranteeing Stafford $43 million, then the Lions overpaid.
Joe Flacco set the upper end of the market for quarterbacks this offseason, when he and the Baltimore Ravens won the Super Bowl in the last year of his deal. As he's just 28 years old, Flacco's six-year, $120 million deal was due to the tremendous leverage a young Super Bowl-winning quarterback has in the NFL market.
Actually, the "young" and "Super Bowl" parts aren't requirements, either. Dallas Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo signed a seven-year, $119 million extension this offseason, and Romo's won just one of his four playoff appearances in six full years as a starter.
So what is the market value for a young, up-and-coming but still-unproven quarterback like Matthew Stafford?
Football Outsiders' DYAR stat "gives the value of the quarterback 's performance compared to replacement level, adjusted for situation and opponent and then translated into yardage." DYAR is the best way to measure whether teams are getting on-field value in return for the on-paper value of these contracts.
Right away, we see the power of Flacco's Super Bowl leverage. In the top left corner, the Ravens have paid dearly for that Lombardi Trophy; they're dropping top dollar on the least valuable quarterback in this group.
Where does Matthew Stafford fit in this picture? Right about where he belongs, based on his performance over the last three years. His average DYAR is 803, nearly the same as Eli Manning's 809, and the AAV of Stafford's contract is just $28,571 more than Manning's.
Whether you believe the Lions overpaid or underpaid for Stafford depends on how he performs going forward.
Tom Brady won't make quite as much as Stafford over the lives of their deals, but with Brady's 36th birthday looming this August, his future is mostly past.
If the Lions are getting the 2011 edition of Stafford, who threw for 5,038 yards and 41 touchdowns and had a passer efficiency rating of 97.2, this contract is a steal for the Lions. If he continues his regression of 2012 (4,967 yards, 20 touchdowns, 79.8 rating), it'll become a salary cap headache.
Even if Stafford's performance stays at 2012 levels, he's a much better quarterback than the Lions could find anywhere else—or have found in the last 60 years. What separates Stafford from Brady, Flacco, Manning, Peyton Manning, Drew Brees, Aaron Rodgers and every other quarterback is his lack of a Super Bowl ring. If Stafford can get the Lions to the promised land, almost any contract would be worth it.
Ultimately, Stafford got paid, and the Lions got their quarterback. It's a win-win for both sides.