DETROIT — Matthew Stafford might become the face, voice and arm of perhaps the biggest rebuilding project in NFL history.
If the Detroit Lions take the Georgia quarterback with the No. 1 pick Saturday, a man with ties to the league who has known Stafford for years is convinced he can handle it.
“They should be so lucky to draft Matthew because he’s going to be a great quarterback for the next 10, 12 years,” Gil Brandt, the former personnel director for Dallas and the NFL’s scouting consultant, said in a telephone interview. “I’ve known him since he was in the seventh grade because you can hit a driver from my house to his and my son was two years behind him in high school.
“I can tell you the Lions wouldn’t have to worry about his ability or character.”
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Detroit general manager Martin Mayhew said the chances were “very good” an agreement would be reached with the No. 1 pick before the draft begins.
Stafford seems to be the first choice, but his contract demands could lead to the Lions reaching a deal with Wake Forest linebacker Aaron Curry or Baylor offensive tackle Jason Smith.
Stafford, Curry or Smith will not be able to fix all the problems associated with the NFL’s first 0-16 franchise, whose 31-97 record since 2001 is the worst eight-year stretch by an NFL team since World War II.
But the Lions can’t afford to draft another bust.
“Obviously, the draft is the biggest crap shoot there is,” Stafford has said.
Recent No. 1 picks have proven that.
Eight of the past 11 players taken first overall in the NFL have been quarterbacks, and half of them either haven’t or didn’t pan out for the teams that took them.
For every Peyton Manning and Carson Palmer, players like Tim Couch and David Carr have shown there are no guarantees.
Mayhew tried to downplay the immediate impact the No. 1 pick will have for the Lions.
“It’s very important, but the draft is not for opening day,” he said.
The Lions acknowledge they’ve been negotiating contract terms with agents of multiple players.
“We can agree on the parameters. We can agree on some structure,” Mayhew said. “But I think you ultimately have to agree with one person.”
Entering his first draft as an NFL GM, Mayhew wouldn’t disclose why he thought it gave the franchise an edge to not identify which players were in the mix for the No. 1 pick.
“It wouldn’t be much of an advantage if I told you,” he said.
The Lions will have a lot of chances to address their many needs after making the first pick Saturday. They also have the 20th pick overall and an extra third-round selection from the Cowboys, who gave up those choices in a trade last season for receiver Roy Williams. The Lions have five of the first 82 slots.
Detroit’s defense desperately needs an infusion of talent at every position group after almost setting a single-season record for points allowed last year. But Mayhew said the franchise is committed to taking the best player on its board each time.
“We are not in a position to bypass a very talented guy because he plays offense or he plays defense,” he said.
The Lions will conduct their first draft since 2000 without Matt Millen, who was fired three games into last season, ending his dubious reign with a 31-84 record over seven-plus seasons.
Mayhew, who was Millen’s top assistant, was promoted and much of the same people in the front office during one of the worst eras in NFL history are still in place.
“There have been some mistakes made in the past,” Mayhew said. “But again, I’m totally focused on the future.”
The Lions didn’t get bad enough overnight to be 0-16 last year and Mayhew acknowledges all their problems are not going to vanish by the end of the weekend.
“We said in free agency we can’t fix all of our personnel problems there,” he said. “We can’t fix everything in the draft.”
If the Lions take Curry, they would move him from outside to inside linebacker. If Smith becomes the second straight offensive tackle drafted first overall, Detroit would likely start him at left tackle and move Jeff Backus to guard.
But if the Lions go with Stafford, as expected, he might get a chance to learn from the sideline initially behind Daunte Culpepper.
What would the Lions get if they take Stafford?
“A guy who is physically gifted and mentally, as well,” Stafford has said. “I’m going to be the same every day no matter what’s going on around me, and that’s accountable.”