The recent news that Ndamukong Suh's agent will begin negotiations on a new contract have started a lot of discussion on whether Suh is worth the money that he is likely to command. The debate has been charged with a lot of emotion and opinion. Such things usually are. Star players will often generate deep emotions. Especially when they are vilified by the media. I will attempt to look at this from a factual standpoint as much as possible and remove the opinion where I can.
I don't think there is much doubt that Suh ranks among the very best defensive tackles in the NFL. The simplest method to rank the relative performance of different players is to compare the number of times they have been named an All-Pro player. Being All-Pro is a valid measure of performance unlike the popularity contest of the Pro Bowl. In his four seasons with the Lions, Suh was named a first team All-Pro three times and a second team All-Pro once. more than any other defensive tackle in the NFL. By that standard Suh is the best player at his position in the NFL.
If you feel that Suh is really the best defensive tackle in the NFL then you also have to concede that he should be paid like he is the best. The top paid defensive tackle is currently Haloti Ngata who makes about $12.1 million per season. The second is Gerald McCoy who earns $11 million per year. In order to put Suh at the top of the heap the Lions would have to offer him a contract worth over $12 million per season and I feel that is what it will take to sign him.
The problem is that the NFL is a salary cap league. I think if the Lions could drop the cap hit for Suh down around $12.5 million per season they would gladly sign him in a heartbeat. Unfortunately, the salary cap rules are not that simple. Suh has $19.4 million in prorated bonuses from his previous contract that are still to be charged against the salary cap. There is a $9.7 million charge in each of the 2014 and 2015 seasons. Since this money has already been paid to Suh there is no way to avoid it. Even if the Lions cut or trade Suh the prorated bonus money will still hit the Lions cap as dead money. It would just have to be paid entirely in 2014 instead of spreading it over two seasons.
Let's look at a contract that may potentially be acceptable to Suh and how that might impact the salary cap. The terms of the new contract would be for five years at $12.5 million per season. That makes the total value of the contract $62.5 million. It also places Suh slightly ahead of Haloti Ngata in earnings and places him as the highest paid player in the NFL at his position. Now you have to add in the $19.4 million in prorated bonuses from his previous contract and the total cap value balloons to $81.9 million. When spread over five seasons the average cap hit is $16.38 million per season.
The important thing to remember about Suh's bonus money that is still to be charged to the cap is that only a small fraction of it is represented by the signing bonus that Suh received. Most of that cap hit is because Suh voluntarily restructured his contract to give the Lions more cap room in previous years. This process will "kick the can down the road" and cause the prorated bonus cap hits to be much larger in the later years of a contract. So for the folks who like to call Suh selfish, just remember that this situation is here now because Suh was very cooperative in previous years in helping the Lions find more cap space. This was a problem created by the cap management of the Lions front office, not Suh.
Whether it is worth paying Suh that kind of money depends on how you value his production to your team. We also have to consider that if the Lions traded Suh, or let him walk away, there would be a replacement player that takes his place. So the value of Suh is really what production he represents over his replacement. His cost is really the amount you have to pay him over his replacement. It is really hard to measure all of this for a defensive tackle because much of what they contribute to the team is not measured in statistics. You have to be able to watch the more obscure aspects of the game in order to fully appreciate what any particular defensive tackle adds to the defense.
The job of a defensive tackle like Suh is to be disruptive to the scheme of the opposition offense. That can be accomplished in different ways. Much of the value of a defensive tackle depends on the defensive scheme, and what role they play in it. Some defensive tackles serve to anchor the defensive line and eat up blocks. These players are often more concerned with run defense than applying a pass rush. Conversely, some defensive tackles are expected to collapse the passing pocket from the inside of the line. That allows them to deny the opposing quarterback the ability to step up in the pocket when the defensive ends get pressure.
With a new coaching staff the Lions defense will be playing a new scheme. All we can do to predict what the Lions defense will do is look to the Baltimore Ravens, where defensive coordinator Teryl Auston came from. This comparison is complicated by the fact that the Lions will initially start as a 4-3 base up front where the Ravens play predominantly a 3-4 front. I feel that, over time, the Lions will morph into playing a defense very similar to the Ravens but they do not currently have the personnel required. Since the mandate is to win now, the defense will have to evolve slowly so that it can remain effective during this transition.
The Ravens have a player on their defensive line, Haloti Ngata, that has a similar salary level to Suh. The have won Super Bowls with that salary structure so it is possible to pay a defensive lineman that kind of money and still have a championship caliber defense. So paying Suh similar to Ngata is not a deal breaker. Once again the bonus money that has to be brought forward is what will make Suh significantly more expensive than Ngata. If you are upset that Suh has such a large cap hit compared to Ngata or other defensive tackles then you need to place that blame on the way the Lions have managed their salary cap, not on Suh.
The real bottom line comes when you consider how much money is likely to be added to the NFL salary cap over the next two or three seasons. Many estimates are predicting somewhere between $20 million to $30 million being added to the cap during that time. While a $16+ million cap hit may seem like a lot today it may not be that much of a problem after the next couple of seasons. That much extra cap money would make Suh affordable.
The real sticking point of the analysis is whether you feel a defensive tackle is worth that kind of money at all. There is a reasonable argument that having two $8 million linebackers, defensive ends, or safeties would have more impact than one $16 million defensive tackle. That is an argument with some merit. Defensive tackle may simply not represent as much value for the dollar as other positions in a defense. That argument especially holds weight if you feel that two very good players will make more impact plays than one great player.
I am not sure there is a simple answer to the question about whether Suh is worth the money. If you are looking at profitability then superstars help to sell tickets and team logo merchandise. In that sense you could find that Suh is worth every penny and then some. If you are looking at how much performance you get on the field for your dollar there are probably more effective way to spend your dollar.