Which is the real Matthew Stafford: 2011 or 2012?
Matthew Stafford's 2013 fantasy value is up for debate heading into the season. Some people accepted early in his career that he would eventually join the elite level of fantasy quarterbacks, and when he achieved that level for the 2011 season, they became willing to overlook the negative data points that reared their ugly head last season. Some people point to things like Calvin Johnson getting tackled six times inside the opponent's 2-yard line last year, or Stafford setting an NFL passing record with 727 attempts, to say there's no cause for concern. The fact of the matter is that, despite that record number of attempts, his fantasy point total regressed significantly and we should really try to identify what caused that regression and whether it's likely to continue.
Let's start with the easiest statistic to measure: completion percentage. During his first two NFL seasons, Stafford had a 54.5 percent completion rate. In 2011, when he rose to the elite level, that rate skyrocketed to a 63.5 percent. Last season, it fell to 59.8 percent, which is now equal to his career rate. With the addition of Reggie Bush, it's safe to expect that the number of pass attempts Stafford tries to his running backs will increase from the 124 he had last season. Since Stafford has completed better than 73 percent of his career pass attempts to running backs, Bush's addition -- meaning more passes to running backs -- likely means an overall increase in completion percentage.
Next, let's see how effective Stafford is in the most important area on the field, the red zone. Last season, Stafford completed just 47 percent of his pass attempts in that area. That ranked him 26th in the NFL, behind such luminaries as Blaine Gabbert, Chad Henne, Carson Palmer and Matt Cassel. For comparison, the top 10 in this category averaged a completion rate of 61.3 percent. Furthermore, those top 10 converted almost 31 percent of their red zone attempts into touchdowns, where Stafford converted at only an 18 percent clip. Finally, those 10 quarterbacks threw interceptions on less than 2 percent of their red zone attempts, while Stafford hovered close to 5 percent.
All of that sounds incredibly negative until you realize that, historically, this had been an area where Stafford excelled. In 2010 and 2011 combined, Stafford completed almost 52 percent of his red zone pass attempts for 35 touchdowns and just three interceptions. Since Stafford played only three games in 2010, that means he averaged almost two touchdowns per game in this area during those two seasons. For comparison, Tom Brady has averaged just over 1.5 touchdowns per game in the red zone over the past four years.
Another area for concern might be how Stafford played with the lead last season. Most fans are aware that the elite fantasy quarterbacks pile on when their team is ahead. Stafford didn't get those opportunities last season. He attempted just 117 passes while the Lions were winning, completing just 54.7 percent, with only two of them going for touchdowns. Amazingly, he was picked off seven times during those attempts. This was a dramatic turn from 2011, when he completed almost 70 percent of his throws while the Lions were winning and had 12 touchdowns and no interceptions on those throws. Look for some regression to the mean, which would be a positive development for Stafford's numbers.
Before crunching these splits, I was of the opinion that any player who had reduced fantasy production during a year when their overall opportunity increased was simply a bad play. I am very glad I delved deeper into Stafford's performance. Based on his previous three years, I find it very likely that his completion percentage and red zone efficiency will return to their previous levels of production.
Those improvements will yield significant fantasy benefits. Each percent of improvement in completion rate will yield approximately an additional 80 passing yards. His red zone efficiency should return close to his prior levels, which would have resulted in approximately an additional 16 passing touchdowns. With an increase to 62 percent passing completion and those red zone scores, Stafford would have totaled about 344 fantasy points in 2012, which would have placed him as the highest scoring fantasy quarterback.
I'm willing to bet on Stafford returning to the elite level of fantasy quarterbacks again, which means I see the 2011 version of Stafford as real. The skills and opportunity are there, and if his production reverts to his previous levels, securing Stafford in the middle rounds of your draft is an absolute steal. The best part of Stafford is that you have likely seen the bottom of his value in his 2012 performance, and you can secure his rights this year based on that low point. Best of all, it's highly unlikely that you'd have to reach for him, as his average draft position at this time places him as a seventh-round selection in 10-team leagues. When you consider that Colin Kaepernick's and Russell Wilson's primary receiving threats both have significant injury concerns, I find Stafford a much safer play. Bottom line, if you are one of those owners who prefers to watch others draft the likes of Tom Brady, Peyton Manning, Drew Brees and Aaron Rodgers, your best option is waiting to snag Stafford. You will be handsomely rewarded.