By: Will Burchfield
Matthew Stafford stepped to the podium on Saturday afternoon, the first day of Lions training camp, and immediately faced a question about his contract.
He smiled knowingly.
Any timetable on a possible extension, Matthew?
“No timetable. I know that Tom (Condon) — my agent — and the guys upstairs are continuing talks. That’s all I can really tell you. That’s why I hired him, so he can deal with that stuff and I don’t have to talk about it except for when you guys ask me questions about it,” Stafford said.
The Lions’ franchise quarterback is entering the final season of his current deal, which will pay him $16.5 million in 2017. Both he and the team are interested in working out an extension, and it’s long been assumed the two parties will come to an agreement before the end of summer.
Lately, though, talks seem to have stalled.
Asked if he was hopeful a deal would have been done by now, Stafford said, “I had no expectations. It’s not like when and if one gets done you guys are gonna not ask me about it then. I guess that’s a false sense of hope. I’m just up here answering y’all’s questions.”
Two of Stafford’s contemporaries cashed in this summer. Raiders quarterback Derek Carr signed a five-year, $125 million contract last month, making him the highest-paid player in the NFL. And Redskins quarterback Kirk Cousins was hit with the franchise tag for the second straight year, guaranteeing him $23.9 million in 2017.
It was widely believed that Stafford would sign a new deal after those two dominoes fell.
But the Cousins situation thickened the plot.
As the first QB in NFL history to play consecutive seasons on the franchise tag, Cousins is methodically and shrewdly driving up his value — and providing Stafford the pathway toward breaking the bank.
If Stafford plays out the last year of his current contract and then takes on the franchise tag, he’ll rake in $26.4 million in 2018. If he follows in Cousins’ footsteps and takes on the tag for yet another season, he’ll make $31.7 million in 2019. After that, Stafford will be due either $38 million under the transition tag or $45.6 million under a third straight franchise tag.
Stafford can sit back and wait for Cousins to cash in, almost assuredly next summer, and then rightly demand more. The franchise tag might preclude him from getting it in 2018, but he’ll be due $30-plus million in 2019 one way or another. If the Lions don’t give it to him, someone else undoubtedly will.
Asked if playing out his current contract is something he’s considering, Stafford said, “I don’t know, I’m honestly pretty tired of talking about it. I’ll be here playing for 16 games at least, hopefully a lot more than that. But we’ll see.”
For Stafford, there’s some value to securing an extension prior to the upcoming season. It protects him against the risk of injury and possible decline. But he’s proven to be one of the most durable quarterbacks in the NFL, having played in every game each of the last six seasons, and the 29-year-old only looks to be on the rise.
The question facing him, then, is why not test free agency?
Stafford sighed, long and hard.
“Not into all that. I’m really just into focusing on football and helping our team win,” he said. “If I spend time thinking about all that kind of stuff, it’s doing a disservice to the guys in the locker room. I don’t want to hear about it, they don’t want to hear about it, we just want to go play football. That’s what we do this for, because we love playing the game, and I’m no different than them.”
Stafford wasn’t exactly exasperated by this line of questioning, but it’s clear he’s growing weary of it. Still, when it comes time to play football, he has no problem blocking out the business.
“It’s not difficult for me,” he said. “No matter if there’s five years on the deal, one year on the deal, three years on the deal, there’s no difference to me as far as my preparation. I’m just doing everything I can to be mentally and physically ready to go. That’s my job.
“No matter what happens, I’ve got a year left on my contract here. I’m gonna be here this year playing football for this team, so it’s on my shoulders to be as good as I possibly can to help our team win.”
Head coach Jim Caldwell sees no difference in Stafford entering training camp — well, maybe one.
“He can have pretty good tunnel vision and he’s been focusing in on getting better. When you look at him from a physical standpoint, he’s always been in great shape this time of year but he may be in better shape than he’s ever been at this point in time,” Caldwell said. “I still believe that you have not seen the best of him yet.”