Pressure Point: Stafford must play

Detroit is an improving franchise, but it needs Matthew Stafford healthy and playing. AP Photo/Rick Osentoski

A weekly look at a player whose performance must improve in 2011.

Quarterbacks make this league go round, and the improving Detroit Lions have a lot invested in their young signal-caller, Matthew Stafford. The way I view this league, there are six truly elite quarterbacks. In no particular order, they are: Peyton Manning, Tom Brady, Drew Brees, Aaron Rodgers, Ben Roethlisberger and Philip Rivers. After this illustrious group, I see 10 to 12 legitimate NFL quarterbacks I believe are capable of leading a team to the promised land. This list includes Eli Manning and Matt Ryan. Injuries have derailed Stafford quite a bit, but the Lions need Stafford to join that second tier in 2011. And I think he will.

Detroit's offensive line could use another starting-caliber player, and adding an every-down running back makes some sense. Overall, though, the Lions' offense has excellent pieces in place. Despite a quarterback carousel in 2010, Detroit ranked right in the middle of the league in points scored. Stafford appeared only in three games in his second season, and when he is out of the lineup the Lions' vertical passing game is greatly compromised. Stafford has outstanding physical tools for playing the position. He isn't bashful about delivering the football and will attack the field at all levels. I love the way the ball comes out of his hand and the way he attacks a defense. Stafford makes NFL throws. There is a ton of room for immediate and drastic improvement with this potential superstar. In fact, he is one of the few guys in the league capable of being on par with the six elite quarterbacks I mentioned above, and that is saying a lot.

Stafford not only needs to stay healthy, he needs to play better. His lifetime 54.5 completion percentage won't cut it. He also has thrown more interceptions than he has touchdowns over his two seasons. To his credit, he did throw only one interception last season, and his completion percentage increased by about 6 percent, which is very encouraging. More experience would go a very long way in his development, but overall I really like what I see.

To finish the season, the Lions won four straight games -- without Stafford. For Detroit to build on that momentum and challenge for a playoff spot, Stafford needs to stay healthy and continue his progression. Playing only 13 out of a possible 32 games just isn't going to cut it for a franchise quarterback, which is exactly what I think Stafford is.

Scouts Inc. watches games, breaks down film and studies football from all angles for ESPN.com.