The NFL Draft is an event of hope and optimism, a struggling team can turn into perennial Super Bowl favorites in the NFL odds, and it all starts with the quarterback. The NFL QB might be the most challenging position in sports. Teams will try for years to draft a franchise quarterback. Sometimes it comes in the first round, or even in the sixth round, in the case of Tom Brady. In this series, we will look at the QB draft history of the Detroit Lions in the 21st century and see how the pick’s career in the NFL turned out.
Mike McMahon (2001)
The first quarterback drafted by the Lions was Rutgers QB Mike McMahon, taken in the fifth round of the 2001 NFL
draft. McMahon was designated as the third-string QB behind Charlie Batch and Ty Detmer to start the season, but when Batch suffered an injury on Dec. 2nd, McMahon was named
the starter. Two weeks later, after starting the season 0-12, McMahon would lead Detroit to their first win of the year against the Minnesota Vikings. Making eight
appearances and starting three games his rookie season, McMahon completed only 46 percent of his passes and threw three touchdowns with one interception.
Detroit drafted a quarterback with the number three pick in 2002, and McMahon saw limited playing time for the remainder of his time with the Lions. He signed with the Philadelphia Eagles in 2005 and started the final seven games of the season after starter Donovon McNabb underwent season-ending hernia surgery. The Eagles went 2-5 with McMahon at the helm. He only completed 45 percent of his passes for 1,158 yards with five touchdowns while throwing eight interceptions to the other teams.
After signing veteran Jeff Garcia, the Eagles released McMahon in 2006. He signed with the Vikings and played during the 2007 NFL preseason but was cut before the regular season started. McMahon continued to play football in the CFL and other leagues until 2013.
Joey Harrington (2002)
Despite going 2-14, the Lions were slotted third in the 2002 draft, behind the expansion Houston Texans team and the 1-15 Carolina Panthers. Detroit selected Oregon QB Joey Harrington in hopes of boosting their NFL playoff odds, but that did not happen. Harrington was in the NFL for only six years. He had his chances, starting 76 games, but his career record was an atrocious 26-50.
It is tough to blame Harrington entirely because the Lions were a bad team all around. He took over the starting job from McMahon in NFL Week three of the 2002 season. He had a 3-9 record, throwing for 2,294 with 12 touchdowns and 16 interceptions but was injured and missed the season’s final two games.
Harrington started all 16 games for the Lions in 2003 and 2004. He led the league in interceptions in ‘03 with 22, and Detroit had double-digit losses in both seasons. Harrington was benched in 2005 in favor of Jeff Garcia but found himself the starter once again later in the season.
The Lions traded Harrington to the Miami Dolphins in 2006. The former first-round pick started as the backup, but an injury to Duante Culpepper forced him into the starting role. Overall, Harrington was still mediocre, but he did manage to lead the Dolphins to a four-game winning streak, including a satisfying victory against his former team on Thanksgiving Day in 2006.
Harrington signed with the Atlanta Falcons in 2007 and took over the starting job after Michael Vick’s suspension. He started ten games and went 3-7, having a career-high 62 percent completion percentage with seven touchdowns to eight interceptions.
Atlanta cut Harrington in 2008. The New Orleans Saints picked him up, but he would be cut again. He would be re-signed and cut numerous times in 2008 and 2009 without ever playing another NFL game.
Dan Orlovsky (2005)
The Lions drafted UConn QB Dan Orlovsky in the fifth round in the 2005 draft, and he might be the poster bo
y for the Lions’ ineptitude during this era. Orlovsky did not play much in his 12-year career, but he is most remembered for his time as the starting quarterback during the 2008 winless season.
Orlovsky started seven games for Detroit and was mediocre at best, but the peak was in NFL Week five against the Minnesota Vikings. In the final seconds of the first quarter, Orlovsky took a snap from his own one-yard line and unknowingly ran out of the back of the endzone for a safety, one of the worst plays in NFL history.
Orlovsky signed with the Houston Texans in 2009 and bounced around the league until his retirement in 2017. He only started 12 games in the NFL and finished with a 2-10 record.
He has transitioned into being a football analyst for ESPN.
Drew Stanton (2007)
Another high draft pick used on a QB selection by the Lions, as they selected Michigan State’s Drew Stanton in the second round of the 2007 NFL Draft. That was the beginning of Stanton’s bad luck as he suffered a severe knee injury during training camp and missed the entire 2007 season. After that, Stanton never started more than three games in a season because of recurring injuries.
Stanton’s first NFL appearance was in relief of Daunte Culpepper, who had suffered an injury. Stanton threw a one-yard touchdown on his first career pass attempt in 2008 against the Jacksonville Jaguars but was then relegated to third-string quarterback in 2009. Another lost season due to injuries, Stanton did not start one game that year. In 2010, Stanton went 2-1 in his three starts, throwing for 78- yards with four touchdowns and three interceptions.
The New York Jets signed the second-rounder in 2012, but after the team acquired Tim Tebow, he requested a trade or he be released. New York obliged, trading Stanton to the Indianapolis Colts. That didn’t work out too well for him, as Indianapolis had the number one overall pick in the 2012 NFL Draft and took Stanford standout Andrew Luck. Stanton was again in a backup role.
Stanton saw the most playing time as an Arizona Cardinal, starting 13 games in his five years on the team. He went 9-4 and threw for 2,901 yards with 15 touchdowns with 15 interceptions from 2013-2017.
He has not played a snap in the NFL since December 2017, but Stanton is still in the league, signing with the Cleveland Browns in 2017 and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in 2020. The Bucs elevated Stanton to the active roster for Super Bowl LV, making him a Super Bowl champion after years of NFL drudgery. Stanton’s practice squad contract has expired, and he is currently a free agent.
Matthew Stafford (2009)
The Lions drafted the greatest quarterback in franchise history when they selected Georgia’s Matthew Staford with the first overall pick in 2009. But Detroit continued to lose and be at the bottom of the NFL playoff odds. Stanford became the first rookie quarterback to start NFL Week one since 1968. His most memorable performance was against the Cleveland Browns in November of that year. The rookie threw five touchdowns for 422 yards, separating his shoulder in this game but coming back to throw the game-winning touchdown in a thrilling 38-37 victory.
Unfortunately, Stafford re-injured his shoulder in the 2010 season and only played in three games. Returning in 2011, Stafford won the NFL Comeback Player of the Year, throwing for 5,038 yards. He became only the fourth quarterback in NFL history and the third in 2011 (along with Tom Brady and Drew Brees) to throw for 5,000 yards. He threw for a career-high 520 yards in an NFL Week 17 loss to the Green Bay Packers.
The connection Stafford had with future Hall of Fame receiver Calvin Johnson was the best in the NFL. Unfortunately for both of them and the Lions, it never resulted in winning football. In Stafford’s twelve seasons in Detroit, the Lions only made the playoffs three times, losing in the wild card round each time. Nor did the Lions win a division title with Stafford under center; the last time Detroit finished first in their division was 1993.
2014 was the only year Stafford has made the Pro Bowl. The Lions went 11-5, and Stafford had 4,257 passing yards, a lower total than his previous four seasons, with 22 touchdowns and 12 interceptions. 2014 would be the last time the Lions would win more than nine games with Stafford under center.
Because the Lions were always trailing, Stafford was forced to throw a lot of passes, which inflates his numbers but does not take away from the fact that he is still a great quarterback and the best Detroit has ever had. However, all good things must come to an end, and the 2021 NFL off-season included a blockbuster deal.
The Los Angeles Rams traded for Stafford, sending QB Jared Goff and three draft picks to Detroit. Stafford left Michigan holding practically every Lions quarterback record in existence. In his 165 starts, Stafford’s record was 74-90, and he threw for 45,109 yards with 282 touchdowns to 144 interceptions.
With a new head coach and now a new quarterback, it is a new era for the Lions. Detroit has historically been one of the worst NFL franchises when it comes to winning games. They have had spectacular players in the modern era like Barry Sanders, Stafford, Johnson, and Ndamukong Suh but have nothing to show for it.
The Lions struggled to draft a quarterback early in the 21st century, but they found a good one in Stafford, and it was still not enough to get them over the hump. Sportsbooks have been down on the Lions for a long time, and for a good reason. With Goff having a fresh start, perhaps a franchise that has been historically bad for nearly 30 years will finally make its way to the NFL postseason.