Stafford had a phenomenal 2011. He threw for a mind-numbing 5,038 yards - only being topped by Drew Brees and Tom Brady. He had the third-most passing touchdowns in the league, behind only Drew Brees (again!) and fellow NFC North denizen Aaron Rodgers. And unlike those other quarterbacks, Stafford was available in the mid rounds of your 2011 fantasy draft.
He did it while throwing 663 pass attempts (finally ahead of Brees in something) for an average of 41.4 throws a game. If only we got points for attempts in most fantasy leagues. Looking at the raw stats, Stafford's season was obviously impressive - 6.1% of the passes he attempted ended in touchdowns while just 2.4% were intercepted. Further, his completion percentage of 63.5% was equally impressive. Plenty of quarterbacks have had a lot of pass attempts in a given season - many of them far less effectively.
The bottom line is that if you had Matthew Stafford as your fantasy quarterback last year, you had a guy who threw a lot, threw efficiently, and protected the ball. The question becomes, will he do it again? Is he likely to repeat his Top 5 fantasy season?
Let's take a closer look at the facts.
First, there have only been five 5,000+ yard seasons in NFL history: Dan Marino's famous 1984 season, Drew Brees flirting with Marino's record in 2008, and then the monstrous trio of seasons in 2011 from Brees, Tom Brady, and Stafford. To reiterate, four quarterbacks, five times.
Further, only two people have ever attempted more passes than Stafford-Peyton Manning in 2010 (679 attempts) and Drew Bledsoe in 1994 (691 attempts). But to be fair, the 600-attempt mark has been topped 27 times, and multiple times by the same quarterbacks. Clearly it's easier to throw 600 passes than to complete enough of them to hit 5,000 yards. So while it is possible that Stafford will throw that many times, it's unlikely that he'll hit the same amount of yards. Even the actual attempts are likely to take a reduction in 2012.
The Lions will never be a ground-and-pound team by any means but they are looking to establish the run more this coming season. If Jahvid Best and Mikel Leshoure can stay healthy (and in Leshoure's case, out of trouble), the Lions will use them to take the pressure off Stafford and the rest of the offense.
That can only mean a reduction in attempts for Stafford. On one hand, it lowers the ceiling on his production for the year. After all, it's more difficult to accumulate 5,000 yards by throwing the ball less often. On the other hand, fewer passing attempts means a decrease in exposure to big hits for Stafford. Last year was, after all, the first in his three-year career that he didn't end with a trip to Injured Reserve.
Maybe most of his injuries have been flukes, but head coach Jim Schwartz will want to limit his oft-injured quarterback's chances of being hurt. All this is to say that it's unlikely Stafford will see 600 plus attempts or 5,000 yards in the 2012 season.
That doesn't mean Stafford won't be a spectacular quarterback. But keep in mind that if you draft him expecting a repeat of his 2011 numbers, you will in all probability, be disappointed. Stafford benefits from one of the league's better receiving corps, consisting of all world Calvin Johnson, reliable Nate Burleson, and promising youngster Titus Young. We all know just how good Johnson is, as the wide receiver accounts for just over a quarter of Stafford's pass attempts and 22% of his completions.
But Johnson's dominance isn't enough, which is why it means so much that both Young and Burleson are effective. Burleson will never be spectacular, but he does well as a reliable target who helps move the chains while keeping defenses from completely keying on Johnson. Young has made some poor decisions, but he has a high upside and could overtake Burleson as a starter as soon as this season.
If Young can't pull it together (and given his sucker-punch of safety Louis Delmas at voluntary workouts, he hasn't) rookie Ryan Broyles will get a shot. Broyles is coming off of an ACL injury but should be ready soon enough. Still, that last spot is a bit shakier than the Lions would like. Tight end Brandon Pettigrew (83 receptions) should not be overlooked. Stafford has the weapons at his disposal to put together another good year, if not quite as unbelievable as 2011.
Calvin Johnson and an above average complementary receiving corps
An improving offensive line
A pass-heavy offense
Only one injury free season in three years
Some question marks at the No. 3 wide receiver spot
Natural regression in attempts and yardage expected in 2012
To reiterate, if you draft Stafford with an eye towards his 2011 numbers, you will be frustrated. The stats he put up last year are just not likely to be repeated. This is not to say he cannot be a top-end fantasy (and NFL) quarterback. There are three keys to his continued success. First, he needs to stay healthy. It's great that he played 16 games in 2011, but after years of having the NFL modifying rules to protect the quarterback, it's what he is supposed to do. He cannot put up points if he isn't on the field. Stafford has cleared this hurdle once, and with the improvements in his offensive line and off-season conditioning, he should continue to do so. Second, his wide receivers need to stay healthy and focused. Obviously, there are no concerns about Calvin Johnson, and while he's unspectacular, Nate Burleson is at least reliable. Stafford needs Titus Young and/or Ryan Broyles to step up to ensure a great 2012. Finally, Stafford needs to throw the ball. While he need not throw it 663 times, he needs to throw it a lot. In order to do that, he needs to stay on the field and the offensive focus needs to remain pass heavy. If those things can happen - and they should - Stafford will repeat as a starting-caliber fantasy quarterback, with upside as high as anyone in the game.
Andrew Garda's Projections Matthew Stafford
550 attempts 335 completions 3,900 passing yards 32 touchdowns 15 interceptions