IF YOU GOTTA START EVERYWHERE – QB!

NEW YORK – He’s 21. Let’s start with that. How finished a product were you at 21? Matthew Stafford is now the future of the Lions, he has been guaranteed more money than any NFL player ever, and he just reached the drinking age.

That alone should tell you the folly of trying to analyze this draft pick. Who knows anything about the future of a 21-year-old – especially in the most complicated and demanding position in professional sports? Maybe he’ll be great. Maybe he won’t. Anyone who tells you more is blowing smoke.

But here are a few things that are undeniable.

People want to know if this was a smart pick. That’s easy. When you are 0-16, how can anything be a dumb pick? You’re terrible. You need help everywhere. If the Lions had picked a linebacker first, they’d still need a quarterback. If they’d picked a pass rusher first, they’d still need a tackle.

Everyone agrees that Stafford is, at least, a good quarterback with a big arm. And last time we looked, the Lions were starting Dan Orlovsky at the position. Daunte Culpepper was a bust last year, he was out of football before that, he gets injured, and, I’m sorry, but losing 25 pounds never won anyone a game.

The Lions need major help at quarterback. Stafford addresses that. The word “dumb’ shouldn’t enter into it. You don’t sit with that paycheck

Now, let’s talk money. Stafford was just guaranteed more money ($41.7 million) than Albert Haynesworth, maybe the best defensive player in the league last season. That’s nuts. And with that money comes pressure.

The smartest thing would be to let this kid sit and learn, let the team get better. That sounds great. Until the Lions drop their first three games and everyone starts screaming for him to start. It always happens. Sitting on a No. 1 is like sitting on a rumbling oil geyser. Fans want it. Media want it. Owners want it.

So he’s going to play. Now let’s talk résumés. Compare Stafford to two first-rounders, Joey Harrington and Matt Leinart. Harrington, whom the Lions selected with the No. 3 pick, lost three games his entire college career; Stafford lost three last season. Yet the knock on Harrington in Detroit was that he wasn’t a winner.

Leinart was a stud at Southern Cal, won the Heisman and a national championship, threw for much bigger numbers than Stafford. But after three years in the NFL, Leinart still rides the bench – behind a guy much older than Culpepper.

What does that prove?

That your résumé means nothing. Just wait until the season

Look. Great quarterbacks come from deep in the draft (Tom Brady) or the top of it (Peyton Manning). The position requires intangibles that you can’t measure at this stage. Leadership is one. Reading defenses is another. And reflexes. The difference of half a second in decision-making in the NFL is the difference between a touchdown and an interception.

You cannot measure that until the guy is in the muck.

Stafford, on paper, is a quality pick, and I even like Brandon Pettigrew, because a great tight end can help you in blocking as well as receiving. But the hype of this day is a waste of breath. I was at Radio City Music Hall on Saturday, and all that was missing was the Rockettes. It’s laughable to see the cottage industry the draft has become, the noise, charts, analysis and screaming opinions over, say, whether Jason Smith should be a No. 2 pick, when you know come September, the guy will crouch down and barely be talked about again.

The most instructive thing I saw all day Saturday was a tape of the moment Brett Favre was drafted. The commissioner said Atlanta had selected “Brett Fa-vor.” So he got him wrong. And the Falcons would trade Favre – so they got him wrong.

And Favre became maybe the best ever.

Nobody knows nothing. All you have is your best guess. Stafford “is used to scrutiny,” coach Jim Schwartz told the Detroit media. Good, because that’s one thing – maybe the only thing – he can count on.

That, and paying the check.

Contact MITCH ALBOM at 313-223-4581 or malbom@freepress.com. Catch “The Mitch Albom Show” 5-7 p.m. weekdays on WJR-AM (760).

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