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Finding context in the Stafford debate

Posted by ESPN.com's Kevin Seifert

The experts are hedging. The fans are sweating. The team is making clear it is considering all of its options.

There are 47 days remaining until the 2009 NFL draft, giving the Detroit Lions some 1,125 hours before they are required to make the No. 1 overall pick. The Lions might need every minute of that span, especially if their internal discussion at all reflects the raging public debate on Georgia quarterback Matthew Stafford.

A classically built, strong-armed quarterback, Stafford has not yet caught on as the consensus No. 1 pick. ESPN.com draft analyst Todd McShay, for example, said recently the Lions face a "nightmare" decision because Stafford is "not mentally ready" to take on the pressures of being the No. 1 overall pick. McShay said that scouts from at least 10 teams agreed with that assessment and added: "I just don't feel great about building my organization around him."

NFL Network draft analyst Mike Mayock told a Detroit radio station that "there are some things about him that bother me," and even Stafford's biggest supporter advocates with a negative argument. Yes, Mel Kiper Jr. said the Lions should select Stafford primarily because "there is nobody else to take."

Even fans are getting into the act. On the day the Lions announced they were playing host to Baylor offensive tackle Jason Smith, Jim of Cincinnati wrote:

Matthew Stafford? Why are people thinking he is a good fit for an 0-16 team? I have seen Stafford play. He gets rattled easily. His arm is ok but his leadership skills lack. Next year they can get a much better QB. This year they need to fill in the holes on defense and on the line.

Why all of this generalist hate against Stafford, who by all accounts offers fine character as well as the draft's strongest arm?

Our friends at ESPN Research have developed a method for fleshing out the debate with statistical analysis. Using time-honored performance standards to predict future success for "blue-chip" quarterbacks, the formula placed Stafford between Akili Smith and Cade McNown in a category reserved for busts.

Does this mean Stafford is guaranteed to crash and burn? Of course not. But this evaluation documents in specific fashion the previously ill-defined criticisms of Stafford, helping to explain why there is so much disagreement about him with the draft little more than six weeks away.

The formula takes into account three statistics: Career starts, completion percentage and touchdown-interception ratio. The theory is that experience, accuracy and production versus mistakes can provide substantive indicators for college quarterbacks.

For those mathematically inclined -- it took me 10 readings to get it after having nightmare flashbacks to eighth-grade algebra -- below is the formula itself. (Note: This is the updated, corrected version of the original post.)

For BCS quarterbacks
(Career Starts x 0.5) + [(Career completion pct. - 60)x5] +[(Career touchdown-INT ratio - 2.25)x10]

For non-BCS quarterbacks
(Career Starts x 0.5) + [(Career completion pct. - 60)x2.5] + [(Career touchdown-INT Ratio - 2.25)x5]

(For a complete explanation of the formula, see the text box on your right.)

To test the formula, ESPN Research plugged in the 31 quarterbacks taken in the first round over the past 12 drafts, dating back to 1997. The results are below.

You'll see the quarterbacks broken into three categories. If their college statistics translated into a value of 20 or more, there was a strong likelihood for success. (Alex Smith and Tim Couch notwithstanding.) A value between 1 and 19 essentially meant "iffy."

But the most revealing category were those quarterbacks who finished with a value of 0 or less. Every one of them failed as NFL quarterbacks. Take a look:

Stafford scored a -4.45, putting him in unflattering surroundings to say the least. You never want to be on a list that includes Jim Druckenmiller and Akili Smith. Stafford's career completion percentage of 57.1 percent and his touchdown-interception ratio of 1.55 were primarily responsible for his poor showing. That left him rated well below USC quarterback Mark Sanchez and slightly behind Kansas State's Josh Freeman.

Stafford's numbers were dragged down by a freshman season in which Stafford completed 52
.7 percent of his passes and threw 13 interceptions against seven touchdowns.

When McShay, Mayock and Jim from Cincinnati express their concerns about Stafford, it's primarily for these reasons: College quarterbacks don't typically improve their accuracy in the NFL. If his decisions were at all suspect against SEC opponents, then it's reasonable to wonder how he will react to professional defenses.

Throw in the state of the Lions, who are coming off an 0-16 season and might feel pressure to start him immediately behind an offensive line that needs help, and you understand the genesis of the Stafford debate. Where will it lead? Luckily, we have 47 days to find out.