By: Will Burchfield
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What once felt like a given now feels like a stretch.

Matthew Stafford may not sign a contract extension with the Lions this summer. Unless the team blows him away with an offer, why would he?

Right, Kirk Cousins?

Over in the nation’s capital, Cousins is in the process of redefining the free-agent market for quarterbacks. He turned down the Redskins’ five-year offer that included $53 million guaranteed, knowing full well he can secure more than that through the franchise tag this season ($23.9 million) and next ($34.5 million).

As the first QB in NFL history to play consecutive seasons on the franchise tag, Cousins is methodically and shrewdly driving up his value. Even if the Redskins slap the transition tag on him in 2018 ($28.8 million), a rival team will likely swoop in and up the ante through an offer sheet. If the Redskins instead allow Cousins to hit the open market, he’s in line to command over $30 million per year.

Considering Washington’s offer was reportedly worth about $22 million annually, it’s no surprise Cousins wanted nothing to do with it. He’s betting on himself to stay healthy and productive in the upcoming season, after which he can strike gold like no NFL player ever has.

Stafford’s in the exact same boat.

If he 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.

The latter scenario won’t come to be, but the former two are very much in the realm of possibility. Factoring in the $16.5 million Stafford is owed in 2017, then, he’s all but assured $75 million through 2019. In sizing up a potential extension, that’s where the guaranteed money should start.

Then there’s the annual salary. Forget the NFL-record $25 million the Raiders are paying Derek Carr each of the next five years. Stafford already stands to make more than that under the franchise tag in 2018. Instead consider that Cousins is set to secure north of $30 million per season next summer, given the high demand for good quarterback play and the comparatively low supply.

Stafford can sit back and wait for Cousins to cash in, 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. To even consider signing an extension now, Stafford should set his floor at $30 million annually.

Sure, the specter of injury could push Stafford to cash in as soon as possible. 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 while there’s also the possibility of decline, the 29-year-old only looks to be improving. Add in the fact that Stafford has already banked over $110 million in his career, and he has every reason to hold off on a new deal now in pursuit of a bigger one down the road.

There are those who seem to believe that Stafford will give the Lions a discount in the name of improving the roster at large. But the QB already cut the team a break with the three-year, $53 million extension he signed in 2013 — he’s unlikely to leave money on the table again. Moreover, Stafford indicated in April he has no interest in accepting a below-market value deal. He wants what he’s worth, and expects the Lions to figure out the rest.

Lions president Rod Wood said last month that he’s willing to pay Stafford “whatever it takes” to lock him up long term. Is Wood comfortable with at least $75 million guaranteed and $30 million per year?

Stafford has no reason to demand anything less.

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