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Matthew Stafford Injury Analysis

By Jared Smola | Updated on Tue, 23 May 2023 . 1:27 PM EDT

Matthew Stafford is now 32-years young. He was born in Tampa, Florida, but moved to Dunwoody, Georgia, while his father attended the University of Georgia (foreshadowing). The family then decided to move to Dallas, Texas. Stafford is an only child and began his high school football career while attending Highland Park alongside Los Angeles Dodgers pitcher Clayton Kershaw.

Stafford was considered one of the best high school quarterbacks in the 2006 class, ahead of Tim Tebow. In 2005, Stafford led his team to a state championship, beating Ryan Mallet's Texarkana squad.

Early in his senior season, Stafford suffered a knee injury that sidelined him for the first three games, yet he still managed to pass for over 4,000 yards that season. With numerous accolades, Stafford, a five-star recruit, and the number one pro-style quarterback prospect chose the University of Georgia as his college landing spot.

Stafford began his collegiate career at Georgia as a true freshman. His first attempt was late in Week 1, but his work detail would soon expand when season starter Joe Tereshinski III would become injured in Week 3.

After a few weeks of ups and downs, head coach Mark Richt decided to make Stafford the starting quarterback for the rest of the season. Stafford would end his freshman campaign with a comeback victory over Virginia Tech in the Chick-Fil-A bowl.

Stafford saw more success in his sophomore season, and by the end of the year, He would take the Bulldogs to their second-straight bowl victory (Sugar Bowl) over the #10 ranked Hawaii Rainbows. Stafford finished sixth in the SEC in passing touchdowns and fifth in pass completions.

In his junior season (2008), Stafford was placed on the Heisman watch-list as the leader of the number one ranked Georgia Bulldogs going into the season. Even though Georgia could not keep their number 1 ranking, Stafford did lead the Bulldogs into another bowl victory. This time over Michigan State in the Capital One Bowl and Stafford earned MVP honors.

In 2009, Stafford was drafted as the number one pick by the Detroit Lions.

Stafford has had success since entering his rookie season. He knocked Daunte Culpepper off his starting perch and then blew the barn doors off when he passed for over 5,000 yards and 41 touchdowns in his third season as a pro.

Since then, Stafford has been a consistent performer; six straight seasons with over 4,000 yards passing and has 22 or more touchdowns five times. He has always been the big yardage generator without the TD's to show for it. Since 2011, he has only once thrown over 30+ touchdowns.

Let's review some of the injuries that Stafford has suffered throughout the years.

Stafford suffered a dislocation of the kneecap (like Mahomes in 2019) in late December of his rookie NFL season, causing him to finish the season on injured reserve. He ended up having surgery after the season, likely to repair the MPFL ligament that was torn. Then, Stafford injured his throwing shoulder in the opening game of the 2010 season. He suffered a shoulder or AC joint sprain.

After taking approximately six weeks off (which is an appropriate amount of time), he, unfortunately, re-injured the same throwing shoulder. This led to world-renowned orthopedic surgeon Dr. James Andrews performing surgery on Stafford's throwing shoulder, which included an AC joint repair and clavicle shaving. This surgery ended his 2010 season. To learn more about this surgery click here.

In 2011, Stafford managed to stay healthy and had a very impressive season, becoming the second-youngest quarterback in NFL history, at just under 24 years old, to throw for 5000 yards in a season.

Impressively, from 2011 through 2018, Stafford played in all 16 games - setting a streak of 136 consecutive regular-season starts. Unfortunately, that streak would come to an end in early November 2019 (his 1st missed since 2010!) with a back injury.

Stafford was diagnosed with multiple non-displaced fractures in his upper thoracic spine (in between the shoulder blades). Stafford suffered the injury on November 3 against the Oakland Raiders. The injury was reported to be transverse process fractures that he suffered while scrambling during a play. I discussed the injury here.

This was a freak and flukey injury. Stafford was in no-way at an increased risk beforehand, and the injury only occurred due to how his body position and rotation were positioned at the time, including the angle and amount of force that the defensive player took. While not life-threatening, it had the potential to cause serious and potentially significant issues if he returned to the field too quickly, hence the reason he did not return in 2019.

I don't expect you to know about the transverse process fractures, so let me help you understand them. Transverse process fractures are relatively common injuries, traditionally secondary to high-energy trauma, like motor vehicle accidents, falls from high heights, but can result due to a sports injury (as in this case).

A transverse process fracture is described as a rotational fracture, secondary to an injury while the person is bending or rotating their trunk. It does not usually affect stability. Transverse process fractures are predominantly treated non-surgically, with a gradual increase in motion (rehab) with or without bracing, depending on the comfort level of the patient.

The transverse process is a small bony projection, extending off of the right and left side of each vertebra/bone of the back. They can be found from the neck all the way down to the low back; traditionally, injuries are in the thoracic or mid-back region. These two processes serve as important attachment sites for muscles and ligaments of the spine, as well as points of articulation for the ribs.

The muscles and ligaments of the back actually do the majority of the heavy lifting in our backs and not the bones themselves. With multiple spinous process fractures, like Stafford suffered, multiple ligaments and muscles will lack stability because where they attach to the body are fractured, and no longer properly attached to the rest of the spine.

Surgery is needed for fractures that are dislocated because they become unstable injuries, which can result in the spinal cord or nerve being damaged. Stafford's fractures were stable, and thankfully he did not require surgery. As a general rule of thumb, the athlete should be pain-free, have pre-injury strength, and a full range of motion before they are allowed to return to play after a spinal injury.

Sports accounts for 9% of all spinal cord injuries, which results in approximately 12,500 new cases per year. The large majority of them are likely stingers (more info here ). Most isolated fractures of the transverse spinous process heal within 4 to 8 weeks.

What needs to be taken into consideration is the exact demand that the player is going to put on his body and on that exact bone. The type of sport and position the athlete also plays factors in the return to play.

The injury is not exactly rare, as multiple quarterbacks in the past have been diagnosed with this fracture and have successfully returned, including Tony Romo, Derek Carr, and Cam Newton. It is unclear whether any of them had as many bones fractured as Stafford had, but some of them missed only a couple weeks.

Let's transition to Stafford as a player. His pocket presence is something he has always excelled at. He is good at getting rid of the ball when sensing where the pressure is coming from, and escaping being hit or sacked. It helps that he has a quick release. When you combine Stafford's release, with his arm strength, a big portion of the quarterback puzzle is forming, but what about the other pieces?

Stafford's accuracy is unfortunately not at a level in the top-tier of performers, as he has always been either in the mid-range or lower, outside of two of the two seasons where he finished 5th (2015) and 6th (2017).

In 2019, Stafford completed 64.3% of his passes, finishing 16th in the NFL. He currently holds a 62.5% completion rate over his career, but most of his passes have always gone downfield, targeting either Megatron (Calvin Johnson) in the past and now Kenny Golladay. The more passes downfield, the less accurate a signal-caller is going to be.

Stafford's quarterback rating put him 6th in the NFL with a 69.6. The rating incorporates passes attempted (291), with passes completed (187), yards gained (2,499), including touchdowns (19) and interceptions (5). In 2019, Stafford only played eight games due to his back injury, but was off to a great season, on pace to finish with 5,000 yards and 38 touchdowns.

Stafford should have solid protection entering the 2020 season. According to Pro Football Focus (PFF), the Lions' offensive line ranked 11th in the NFL last season, but 2020 brings two new starters. Right tackle Halapoulivaati Vaitai takes over for the departed Rick Wagner and back-up left guard Joe Dahl will replace Graham Glasgow. Detroit drafted Jonah Jackson in the third-round who will compete with Dahl. The line uses a gap-power offensive scheme.

This protection will be solid enough to give enough time for Stafford to locate his weapons, including the aforementioned Golladay, Marvin Jones, and Danny Amendola. The Lions also added Quintez Cephus in the fifth round.

Throw in promising second-year starter and 2019 first-round selection T.J. Hockenson, add the oft-injured Kerryon Johnson, sprinkle in potential stud-rookie D'Andre Swift, and this Lions team is on the prowl.

Final Prognosis:

Sports Injury Predictor calculates that Stafford has a 24.2% chance of injury in 2020, which is quite low and they do not expect him to miss any games.

By the time the 2020 season begins, Stafford will have had well over ten months to heal. This should be ample time for him to not only allow the fractures to heal, but also strengthen his core muscles to a point where he should not have to worry about this injury going forward. Remember, several NFL QBs have suffered this injury and returned to the field, so this injury is not a career-ender. I think Stafford will return to his Iron-Man ways, and I am not concerned about this unfortunate fluky injury.

Stafford was flashing signs of being an elite fantasy football quarterback in 2019 before this injury derailed his season. As far as this injury is concerned, my risk rating for him is very low, and he should be a great buy-low, late-round value heading into the 2020 season. Let other people worry about whether or not his back injury will linger; you now know it won't.

With a healthy back, an improved offensive line, and more weapons (D’Andre Swift) look for Stafford to continue where he left off in 2019. He should finish between QB5-8.

Injury Risk: Low. 2/10.

Jared Smola Author Image
Jared Smola, Lead Analyst
Jared has been with Draft Sharks since 2007. He’s now Lead Analyst, heading up the preseason and weekly projections that fuel your Draft War Room and My Team tools. He currently ranks 1st among 133 analysts in draft rankings accuracy.
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