Lions apparently have no doubts about Stafford

Posted by ESPN.com's Kevin Seifert
Matthew Stafford faced as many questions, doubts and criticisms as any No. 1 draft pick in recent memory.

  • His accuracy was suspect.

  • His college team didn't win big.

  • He was the best of a weak quarterback class -- one that didn't include Heisman Trophy winner Sam Bradford.

  • He wouldn't fare well on a rebuilding team with a weak offensive line.

I know for a fact there were some NFL teams who didn't consider Stafford the best quarterback in the draft, let alone worthy of the top overall pick. But it's clear now that Detroit wasn't one of them. The Lions jumped head-first onto the Stafford bandwagon with a contract so audacious it could only mean they are legitimately enamored with him.

If the Lions shared any of the preceding doubts -- if they had any lingering questions about Stafford's ability to develop into an elite quarterback -- it's hard to believe they would have allowed the negotiations to reach the point they did. In terms of guaranteed money, the Lions gave Stafford almost a 30 percent raise over last year's No. 1 pick, Miami offensive tackle Jake Long. Stafford's $41.7 million in guarantees was 17 percent more than Atlanta gave quarterback Matt Ryan last year as the No. 3 overall pick.

You could say the Lions had no choice but to pay market price if they wanted to draft a quarterback at No. 1 in 2009, but they had a much cheaper and possibly safer alternative; Wake Forest linebacker Aaron Curry said this week he would sign for less than what Long received. Assuming he was speaking about guaranteed money, Curry could have saved the Lions almost $12 million on a five-year deal and perhaps $10 million with a six-year deal.

Even in the NFL's fantasy-land economic system, an eight-figure difference is a big deal. But the Lions never seriously considered Curry's offer and instead plowed ahead with Stafford.

Earlier this offseason, Lions coach Jim Schwartz insisted the Lions would pursue all options to find their next quarterback. He added: "I've been on the record saying quarterback is the most important position on the team. But there's a lot of different ways to get that quarterback."

So if Schwartz considered Stafford a flawed quarterback, I have a hard time believing he would have signed off on this decision. Every coach wants a blue chip quarterback to groom, but ultimately Schwartz knows it's not in his best long-term interest to take on a project that might backfire and return him to square one.

Schwartz must feel confident his coaching staff can even out the rough patches in Stafford's game and develop him into a long-term starter. I'd be surprised if the Lions' intent was to do anything other than make Stafford a backup for 2009 and possibly 2010.

More than anything, however, Schwartz couldn't resist the powerful tug to begin building his program around a specific quarterback.

It's a sentiment Baltimore coach Jim Harbaugh expressed earlier this year at the NFL owners' meeting when I asked him about drafting quarterback Joe Flacco in 2008.

Harbaugh: "The thing that's interesting to me is that when you have the quarterback in place, it really becomes clear and evident what else you need. If your quarterback is not in place, it's just kind of murky. What kind of receivers do you need? What kind of running backs? How are you going to build your offense? It's all kind of muddled. When you get the quarterback, it just seems that it's easier to define. This guy is going to be a good fit for what we're trying to do in the offense."

Ignore the specific issues surrounding Stafford. In the big picture, the Lions have laid down the first and most important building block of their new regime. With Friday's agreement, Detroit has given itself a focal point to construct around. To do it, they paid sure-thing money for what some observers consider a could-miss player. Time will tell who was right.