A while back I posted an article about whether the Lions should extend the contract of Ndamukong Suh. My conclusion in that article is that the Lions should try to negotiate a new contract with Suh and that has turned out to be the path the Lions have taken. The negotiations have taken longer than many fans would like and that has caused some fans to blame Suh for the limited ability of the Lions to sign free agents and drafted players. Let's take a look at the negotiating positions of the two sides and the reality of the Lions options.
Let's start by looking at the idea that the inability to arrive at a new contract with Suh has hurt the Lions. In short, I do not agree. The Lions have Calvin Johnson under contract for six more seasons. Reworking his contract to give his 2014 salary as a bonus would allow the Lions to gain about $4.167 million in cap room while only raising the cap by 833K per season in the 2015 through 2019 seasons. Since the salary cap is estimated to be raised by several million dollars again next season this would not really hurt the Lions overall salary cap position going down the road. That would give the Lions the money to sign the remainder of their draft class with ease. The important part of this point is that the Lions have not already done this. That implies that the team is confident that they have a chance to work something out with Suh before practices begin where players must be under contract to participate.
I am also confident that if the Lions really wanted to sign a free agent that they currently could not afford they would have made a series of moves to gain cap room. The reworking of Johnson's contract could have been combined with releasing players like Montell Owens and/or Mikel Leshoure who seemingly would not fill a major role for the team in the upcoming season. The fact that these moves did not take place implies that the Lions do not have any other free agents on the radar that they value more than Owens or Leshoure. The coaches and front office appear to be satisfied with the starters they have lined up and do not feel that losing another player to improve on one of them is a sensible move.
Now let's look at how the negotiating situation with Suh may be developing. The biggest reason for the Lions to renegotiate the contract with Suh is his cap hit for the 2014 season, which is in excess of $22.4 million. The room that the Lions have to work with this season is relatively limited, however. Over $9.7 million of Suh's cap hit is from prorated money on bonuses that Suh has already received. There is no way out of that charge to the cap. Even if the Lions succeed in negotiating a new deal for Suh that money must still be paid. The remainder of Suh's cap hit comes from his salary of about $12.5 million. It is this salary figure that the Lions can reduce in order to lower the cap hit for Suh.
The first problem comes in how much money you have to pay for Suh. Actually, his 2014 salary amount is about right. At a $12.5 million salary Suh is slightly above Haloti Ngata as the highest paid DT in the NFL. That is in line with his performance during his previous seasons. At first glance that may make it seem that the Lions cannot give Suh a deal he would take while lowering his cap number. The truth is that salary cap rules allow the Lions to do some magic in order to ease the cap and still give Suh a fair salary. To make it work the Lions would have to give Suh a significant signing bonus which they could spread over the length of the entire contract. In my article that I linked at the beginning of this post I outlined an example of just such a contract that would give the Lions almost $6 million of cap space this season and keep Suh at about a $16.5 million cap hit through each year of the deal.
The problem with all of this is that Suh does not have a lot of incentive to sign the new contract this season. He is already earning about the same salary as he can expect to get in a new contract. The only big enticement that Suh has is the signing bonus. So the Lions will have to give a good one for Suh, and his agent, to agree. There is still a good chance that Suh will agree to a new contract this season, but the Lions gain more leverage as time goes on.
Let's assume that Suh does not agree to a new deal for the 2014 season. That would make Suh a free agent for the 2015 year and give the sportswriters lots of fodder for articles during the next off season. That would be interesting since the sportswriters may actually be forced to admit how good a player Suh really is. It would all be moot, however, because the Lions would give Suh the franchise tag as soon as they are allowed. That would mean that Suh would get the average of the top 5 salaries at his position.
In the 2014 season the value of the franchise tag for a defensive tackle was $9.65 million. Since Suh would still have one more season with prorated money to charge against the cap that would add another $9.7 million to his cap hit. The cap for DTs would also rise some so lets estimate it at $10.5 million for the 2015 league year. That would bring his total cap hit to about $20.2 million. Even if Suh were to be franchised for 2015 the Lions would stand to gain about $2 million against the cap when compared to 2014.
The interesting part of this really comes when you look at the salary that Suh would get. The $10.5 million franchise tag number would likely represent a loss in salary of about $2 million for 2015 when compared to the $12.5 million per year, or more, that Suh stands to get in a new contract. This begins to tip the scale into the Lions favor in the negotiations. Especially when you consider that every NFL player is aware that they could have their career end on any given play. There is now a clear incentive for Suh to sign a new deal.
Even if Suh does not agree to a new contract for 2015 the Lions can franchise him again in 2016. In this case his salary becomes 120% of his previous year which would bring it back around the $12.5 million mark that Suh would normally earn. The big difference is that the Lions would have already charged off all of the prorated bonus money from Suh's rookie contract. That represents about $10 million in cap savings when compared to 2014.
The more important point is that the Lions will not have to worry about any more charges against the cap from Suh's old contract. That means the Lions could raise their offer to Suh into the $14 million per season range and still realize a significant cap savings. The Lions could offer that before the 2016 season began and that would probably be hard for Suh to decline.
What this all really boils down to is that the Lions can afford to be patient in negotiations with Suh. Every year they wait to give Suh a new contract will place them in an increasingly better cap position. I know that there has been some hysteria about the cap figures concerning Suh but the situation is not nearly as dire as some posters would like you to think. I would suggest that those posters either do not understand how the salary cap works or they are simply posting fabrications to bolster their own position. Suh will remain a Lion for at least three more seasons regardless of what happens in contract negotiations because he will be franchised. There is plenty of time to make it all work out because time is on the side of the Lions.