2. Matthew Stafford
Casual football fans that may watch the Lions once a year during their traditional Thanksgiving Day game may have forecasted plenty of gloom and doom for Matthew Stafford upon learning of Calvin Johnson’s retirement during the 2016 offseason.
But those in the know were well aware of the fact that the strides the veteran quarterback had made during the second half of his 2015 campaign had more to do with the ascension of Jim Bob Cooter to the role of offensive coordinator rather than anything Megatron accomplished.
Many were taken aback by Johnson’s decision to leave the game at the age of 30 and felt that he still had at least of a couple of quality years left in the tank.
Yet, the 6-foot-5 pass catcher was a mere shadow of his former self in 2014 and for portions of 2015, as injuries conspired to slow him down and prevent him from being that consistent force that always required special attention from opposing defenses.
With Cooter calling the shots, though, Stafford found himself using a more simplified approach in moving the offense by releasing the ball quicker and, as a result, completing shorter passes to his underneath receivers.
The 29-year old’s touchdowns were down (32 to 24) in his first full year under Cooter, but his other numbers saw improvement across the board, including his 10 interceptions—a career low over the course of a full season.
And though Stafford isn’t throwing downfield as much as he once was, he’s become more efficient in that area by increasing his deep-ball accuracy from 35 percent in 2015 to 42.4 percent this past season, according to PFF.
What’s more, the 9th-year pro exhibited better poise over the course of 2016 in the form of his completion percentage under pressure, which jumped from 61.5 to 65.7, as per PFF analyst John Gatta.
In an effort to support the franchise quarterback’s steady rise, general manager Bob Quinn prioritized shoring up the offensive line by replacing Larry Warford and Riley Reiff at the right tackle and right guard positions respectively with the free-agent acquisitions of former Packer T.J. Lang and ex-Baltimore Raven Ricky Wagner.
The addition of 6-foot-4 Kenny Golladay at wide receiver via the draft can also potentially supply Stafford with a much-needed playmaker on the outside with 4.5 speed.
If the NIU product can claim the WR3 role in the offense, it will pave the way for Golden Tate to settle in as the team’s full-time slot receiver—the position he’s best suited for—now that Anquan Boldin is no longer in the picture.
Things are looking up for Stafford, who may have everything in place for him to make that quantum leap from being a bottom-end top-10 passer to entering the ranks of the top 5. Stay tuned.