This past offseason I pondered the idea of the Detroit Lions being able to keep Matthew Stafford, Calvin Johnson and Ndamukong Suh long term. That was during a time when both the Lions and Suh had a window to get a deal done before training camp. It was before team president Tom Lewand slammed the window shut just as training camp began. It was also before Houston Texans star defensive end J.J. Watt agreed to a six-year contract extension worth $100 million.
Timing is everything
There's no doubt Suh's agent, Jimmy Sexton, will use Watt's contract as a bargaining chip going forward. Both he and Suh have the right to argue Suh should be the highest-paid defensive lineman in the league. But here’s the thing about being the "highest-paid player" at a position: you’re only there until the next guy signs. Look at the cornerback market, for example. Richard Sherman signed a contract extension on May 7 worth $56 million over four years and averaging $14 million per year. This trumped the previous high mark on multi-year deals of $10 million that Brandon Carr got from the Dallas Cowboys in 2012. Then, on July 29, the Arizona Cardinals signed cornerback Patrick Peterson to a five-year extension worth $70 million and averaging $14.01 million. It’s all a matter of who is latest to sign.
This brings us back to Suh and Watt (and even Gerald McCoy). Each one of these guys was and is going to get paid. Each guy can make a case for why they deserve to be one of the highest-paid players in the NFL. But the timing of the deal determines who actually is the highest-paid player.
It’s also important to recognize the business side of these contract negotiations. I don’t think it’s any coincidence that Suh signed with Sexton, whose firm CAA also has Watt and McCoy as clients. I also don’t think it’s any coincidence that Suh and his agent have played hardball up to this point. Suh seems to be waiting for the market to reset itself (and increase) before getting his deal done.
Suh could end up getting more than Watt despite not being as good of a player. Ultimately the market, not solely the play on the field, determines what a guy is worth.
Is Suh worth it?
There are a lot of factors that go into determining the worth of a player, especially one as high profile as Ndamukong Suh. For starters, there’s the position he plays. Defensive tackle is not a premier position in the NFL; however, with a larger emphasis on pressuring the quarterback up the middle, elite defensive tackles have come en vogue.
Here’s what I had to say about Suh and positional value back in June:
The Lions drafted Suh to disrupt the quarterback, much like a team would draft an edge rusher to do. According to Pro Football Focus, Suh had 72 total quarterback pressures (sacks, hits, hurries) in 2013. I’m a firm believer in what Josh Norris of Rotoworld often says, "disruption is production." Suh was second in Pass Rush Productivity amongst defensive tackles, pressuring the quarterback on 10.2 percent of his rush attempts.
That figure puts him above players like Mario Williams and Terrell Suggs (3-4 OLBs) and just below guys like DeMarcus Ware and Chris Long (4-3 DEs).
Last year wasn’t just a fluke, either. Suh has been in the top 10 in terms of Pro Football Focus’ signature pass rush stat since entering the league. He’s also almost doubled his total pressures since his rookie season.
Another factor when deciding value is availability. This is something no one ever seems to account for when talking about Suh, but it can’t be underestimated. All you have to do is look down at his linemate, Nick Fairley, to see how important actually being available is to a team. Suh has played nearly 85 percent of all defensive snaps since his rookie year. Compare that with Fairley, who has only been able to play around 54 percent of total defensive snaps in his career. Suh has never missed time due to an injury, and the only time he’s missed games is for his on-field antics (which is a whole other factor in itself).
If the Lions want to re-sign Suh, it’s going to cost them. There have been whispers that the deal could be upwards of $16-$17 million per year.
If Suh did in fact turn down deal whispered as 5 yr./$85M, this Watt deal doesn't help him much. He's great but not on Watt's level.— Jeff Risdon (@JeffRisdon) September 2, 2014
If Suh does eventually sign for around that price tag, the Lions would have nearly $50 million per year invested in Stafford, Johnson and Suh. Even if the salary cap reaches the projected $150 million mark by 2016, that’s still 33 percent of the cap invested in just three players.
What's Plan B?
Life without Suh gets complicated quickly for the Lions. At that point they really have two options: franchise Nick Fairley or drastically alter the defensive scheme. Frankly I don’t like either of these options. Fairley has never proven to be the consistent talent that Suh is, and even a career year from him in 2014 won't prove that to me.
I also don’t think the organization wants to alter their scheme too much after investing high dollars and draft picks into building a traditional 4-3 defense.
In the end I think the Lions will pay Suh market value, whatever that ends up being. Whether it’s $14 million, $17 million or somewhere in between, I think the Lions know they need Suh on their defense to be competitive. They’ve built the entire defense to flow through the defensive line. Any crack -- or crater, in Suh’s absence -- in the strength of the line and the Lions defense crumbles.
The Lions believe their window for a championship is now, and their checkbook is about to follow suit.