The Detroit Lions made the playoffs for the first time in 13 years last season. The franchise and its fans are pretty excited for the seasons that lay ahead, but there could be one problem that hinders the success the team experienced for the first time since moving to Ford Field. The potential problem: the salary cap. The Lions certainly have some tough choices to make in the seasons to come, and the outcome of those choices will lead them to greater triumphs or the same old misery.
The Detroit Lions finally have a strong core, but the salary cap will prevent it from becoming an even stronger force. Impending unrestricted free agents in 2012 include defensive end Cliff Avril, linebacker Stephen Tulloch, defensive tackle Andre Fluellen, left tackle Jeff Backus, and backup quarterbacks Shaun Hill and Drew Stanton. But maybe the most important piece of the core is wide receiver Calvin Johnson. Johnson, 26, finished the 2011 season with 96 receptions for 1,681 yards and 16 touchdowns. He had another 12 catches for 211 yards and two touchdowns in the wild card game against the Saints. Johnson is the best receiver in the game, but is he the most important part of the core?
ESPN's Adam Schefter has reported Calvin Johnson's 2012 cap number will be nearly $22 million. With the 2012 salary cap projected to be just under $124 million, Johnson will consume 17.8 percent of the cap if he and the Lions do not reach a contract extension. The Lions and Johnson's agent are in the opening stages of contract negotiations, and while I'm hopeful an agreement can be reached, it must make sense for both sides. A cap number too large will hurt Lions team in the seasons ahead, while a cap number too low will result in Megatron leaving as an unrestricted free agent after next season, with nothing in return. If the Lions re-sign Calvin Johnson to a more lucrative deal than Larry Fitzgerald's eight year, $120 million contract, it will hurt the team. Fitzgerald owns an average cap hit of $15.22 million, and with Johnson expected to sign a new deal exceeding that number, it might not be the smartest business decision for the team. When looking at the last six quarterbacks to play in the Super Bowl, Drew Brees' cap hit was $10.8 million in 2009 and Peyton Manning's was $14 million, Ben Roethlisberger's was $8.05 million in 2010 and Aaron Rodgers' was $16.07 million, and Eli Manning's cap hit was $12.94 million in 2011 and Tom Brady's was $13.21 million. The last six quarterbacks to play in the Super Bowl owned an average annual cap hit of $12.52 million. If Calvin Johnson is signed to a contract with a cap hit exceeding Larry Fitzgerald's $15.22 million, when Matthew Stafford is an unrestricted free agent after the 2014 season, he will command a higher cap hit, which will create a very sticky situation. Calvin Johnson is expected to be offered an eight year deal worth north of $130 million, which would equate to an annual cap hit of $16.25 million, and that's not including any bonuses. Once Stafford's contract is up, he'll be looking for a contract close to seven years worth nearly $135 million, an annual cap hit of $19.3 million, with no bonuses. Two players signed for $35.55 million for the next seven years is on the brink of insanity, if not, blown over the edge. As is, Stafford and Johnson will eat up $37.54 million of the 2012 salary cap, leaving just $86.21 million for the other 51 roster spots.
Arguably, the best solution to this cap mess is trading Calvin Johnson. I know it's not a popular opinion, but in the salary cap era, tough decisions must be made. Calvin Johnson plays a luxury position, one in which the best players have proven time and time again the position is not the biggest need. It's not about having the best player at a particular position as it is having an adequate quantity of weapons in those positions. Instead of having one 1,500-yard receiver, I would rather have two that will total 1,600 or 1,700 yards, or three that will total 2,300 or 2,400 yards. Rather than having a 1,200-yard running back, I would rather have three running backs who can run for 600 yards each. By trading Calvin Johnson, you could net a bevy of talent at positions of greater need.
A sensible trade proposal that comes to mind is Calvin Johnson to Cleveland. Adding defensive tackle Corey Williams and a 2013 sixth round pick could net two first round picks, a second round pick, and a fourth round pick. With the trade proposal, Cleveland would net the best receiver in the game, a capable defensive tackle in Corey Williams, and could be in the mix for quarterback Peyton Manning. Detroit could net a franchise left tackle(Matt Kalil-USC) to protect Stafford or cornerback(Morris Claiborne-LSU), a restricted free agent receiver such as Mike Wallace or keep the pick and possibly draft a receiver such as Alshon Jeffery, a franchise center(Peter Konz-Wisconsin) or left tackle Mike Adams(Ohio State), and a very good linebacker(Lavonte David-Virginia Tech). In addition, Kyle Vanden Bosch should be given his release, and with the cap room the Lions would free both with the trade and Vanden Bosch's release, they could be in the mix for defensive end Mario Williams, cornerbacks Carlos Rogers and Cortland Finnegan, while also being able to re-sign defensive end Cliff Avril, linebackers Stephen Tulloch and DeAndre Levy, and defensive tackles Sammie Lee Hill and Andre Fluellen.
With the moves I am proposing, the Lions starting defense could feature: DE Mario Williams, DT Ndamukong Suh, DT Nick Fairley, DE Cliff Avril, OLB Justin Durant, ILB Stephen Tulloch, OLB Lavonte David, CB Carlos Rogers or Cortland Finnegan, CB Chris Houston or Morris Claiborne, FS Louis Delmas, and SS Amari Spievey. The Lions starting offense could feature QB Matthew Stafford, RB Mikel LeShoure, WR Mike Wallace or Alshon Jeffery, WR Titus Young, TE Brandon Pettigrew, TE Tony Scheffler, LT Matt Kalil or Jeff Backus, LG Rob Sims, C Dominic Raiola, RG Stephen Peterman, and RT Gosder Cherilus.
My 2012 draft with the moves I am proposing: 1st Round(4th): LT Matt Kalil-USC, 1st Round(22nd): C Peter Konz-Wisconsin, 1st Round(23rd): WR Alshon Jeffery-South Carolina, 2nd Round(36th): OLB Lavonte David-Virginia Tech, 2nd Round(55th): WR Stephen Hill-Georgia Tech, 3rd Round(87th): DT Mike Martin-Michigan, 4th Round(101st): WR Tommy Streeter-Miami(FL), 4th Round(120th): RB Chris Rainey-Florida, 5th Round(154th): SS Brandon Taylor-LSU, 7th Round(226th): QB Kellen Moore-Boise State, 7th Round(Compensatory Pick from Seattle): RB Lance Dunbar-North Texas. I would also pick up WR Keshawn Martin-Michigan State as an undrafted free agent if he becomes available.
Now is the time to be very frugal, and I believe these strategic moves will make the Lions a better team not only next season, but for several seasons beyond. The Lions can't afford to sign Calvin Johnson to a deal the same as Fitzgerald's, or one that exceeds it. I hope general manager Martin Mayhew and head coach Jim Schwartz realize this before they offer Calvin Johnson a new contract.