Fourth-quarter efficiency is key
Matthew Stafford had the powerful right arm. Mark Sanchez had the savvy leadership coming from an uber-talented Southern California squad. Josh Freeman had the down-the-line potential even though he came out of Kansas State a little raw in NFL skills.
Heading into their third seasons, potential won out. Freeman is the closest to being an elite quarterback from the Class of 2009. So often in sports, you hear scouts talk about going for the player who has the "greater upside.'' General managers often go for the safer selection, knowing their job security often can't depend on waiting for a "down-the-line'' prospect.
In this case, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers hit it big. Freeman was the 17th pick in the 2009 draft. Expectations weren't as high. Wisely, the Bucs didn't rush him into a starting job. They waited until the ninth week of the 2009 season to make him a starter and made the transition in a bye week.
Like most rookies, he struggled. He completed 54.5 percent of his throws, a typical percentage for a first-year starter. But he had a flair for picking up his game in the fourth quarter. By his second season, he was a master of fourth-quarter passing.
His 97.4 quarterback rating in fourth quarters was the seventh-best in the league. He completed 62.6 percent of his fourth-quarter throws. Top NFL quarterbacks earn their money with their ability to move an offense in the fourth quarter. Freeman has that.
He also has developed a great ability to get the ball downfield, an important part of a young quarterback's growth. Teams like to look at yard-per-attempt as a good barometer of a quarterback's ability to throw downfield. Freeman was at 7.3 last year. Sanchez was at 6.5. Stafford is a career 5.9, but his sample size is small -- only 13 starts in two seasons because of injuries.
The rise of Freeman is similar to what we saw with Ben Roethlisberger in the Class of 2004. Eli Manning and Philip Rivers were the top quarterback prospects that year. Roethlisberger was the raw talent coming out of Miami (Ohio) who supposedly needed time to develop. Yet, an injury to starting quarterback Tommy Maddox gave him a chance to start and help to take the Steelers to the AFC title game as a rookie.
Freeman was a 10-game winner in his first full season as a starter. Although Sanchez has gone to two title games in two years, Freeman is the quarterback with the better stats and the better chance to advance to the ranks of the best quarterbacks in the league.
John Clayton, a recipient of the Pro Football Hall of Fame's McCann Award for distinguished reporting, is a senior writer for ESPN.com.
Forget his health -- look at numbers
We all know Stafford has missed more games (19) than he's played in (13) since the Lions made him the top pick of the 2009 draft. Three shoulder separations and torn cartilage in his knee have derailed progress and raised questions about his future in the game.
But no one with medical credibility has suggested that Stafford's injuries make him any more vulnerable to future injuries than other quarterbacks. So in reality, the caveat we set forth in predicting Stafford's career is no different from what we would say for Josh Freeman of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers or Mark Sanchez of the New York Jets: If he stays healthy.
Presuming health, there are no limits for Stafford -- especially in the short term while playing in an offense stocked with playmakers such as Calvin Johnson, Nate Burleson, Brandon Pettigrew, Tony Scheffler, Jahvid Best and Mikel Leshoure. Although it was overlooked last year amid his injuries, Stafford demonstrated notable improvement over his rookie season and is entering his third year of coordinator Scott Linehan's system.
For those who missed it, Stafford had the NFL's best passer rating against the blitz at the time of his season-ending injury. His fourth-quarter passer rating was 109.9, good for second in the NFL at the time, and he had a 104.4 rating on third down. Finally, he threw 88 of his 96 passes from the pocket.
Viewed together, those numbers reflected a quarterback who remained cool under pressure and was working hard to be the type of pocket passer that flourishes long-term in the NFL. It is obviously a small sample size, but when combined with the mettle Stafford demonstrated as a rookie -- throwing a game-winning touchdown against the Cleveland Browns one play after separating his left shoulder -- you see the framework of a high-caliber NFL quarterback.
Earlier this offseason, Lions coach Jim Schwartz said the most important part of Stafford's development is "to keep him on the field." Predicting that success is fruitless. The remaining evidence suggests the brightest of futures.
Kevin Seifert is the NFC North blogger for ESPN.com.