As it stands right now, defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh is technically under contract with the Detroit Lions through the 2015 season. A week from Friday, however, Suh's final contract year will void, setting him up to become an unrestricted free agent on March 10. The Lions are going to attempt to keep him from hitting the open market by restarting negotiations on a long-term deal, but the expectation at this point is that he will have an opportunity to test free agency.
The other expectation at this point is that the Lions will have to make Suh the highest-paid defensive player in NFL history if they want to bring him back. That means eclipsing the six-year, $100 million deal that the Houston Texans gave J.J. Watt before the 2014 season, and it means setting aside yet another big chunk of the salary cap for a long-term deal. Should the Lions actually go through with this in order to make sure that Suh is a Lion in 2015 and beyond, or would their best course of action be to simply move on and use that money elsewhere? Let's examine both sides of this debate.
Re-sign Suh: The Lions should absolutely re-sign Suh, regardless of the cost, because he's just too valuable to their defense.
This statement wouldn't have meant much before the 2014 season. We saw flashes from the Lions defense at times under Jim Schwartz, but they were never consistently one of the top units in the entire NFL. As a result, Suh's overall impact was diminished because the Lions defense as a whole wasn't exactly all that dominant.
In 2014, however, Teryl Austin took much of the same talent Schwartz had and helped make the Lions defense a dominant force. The Lions went 11-5 and made the playoffs mainly because of their defense, and Suh played a big part in that. He was the centerpiece of the NFL's No. 1 run defense, and he created numerous opportunities for his teammates by taking on constant double teams. The Lions defense is really built around Suh and his skill set.
Let Suh walk: If Teryl Austin is such a difference-maker on defense, is Suh really worth $16-17 million a year?
Under Schwartz, Suh was a dominant player, but the defense around him was really nothing more than average. Under Austin, Suh was still a dominant player, but Austin's scheme and overall coaching ability made the rest of the defense much, much better. Austin overcame the loss of his middle linebacker, top two nickelbacks and a starting defensive tackle, and he often was able to plug second- and third-stringers in without any noticeable drop-off. Suh may be on another level from a talent standpoint, but if Austin can make up for the loss of multiple starters, shouldn't he be able to scheme around not having Suh at defensive tackle? Instead of dedicating more than $100 million to Suh over the next six years or whatever the contract ends up being, why not just re-sign Nick Fairley and C.J. Mosley, draft a defensive tackle as extra insurance and let Austin work his magic?
Re-sign Suh: Re-signing Suh is a long-term investment, and he's likely to be around a lot longer than Austin.
Austin may not have gotten a head coaching job this offseason, but based on the amount of interest he received, it's probably only a matter of time. In other words, you could bank on Austin keeping the Lions defense afloat with guys like Fairley and Mosley at defensive tackle instead of Suh, but what about when Austin is gone? Re-signing Suh is a move that will keep him around for the next five or six years, and he's someone who is actually dependable. Suh is never injured and is almost always on the field. Fairley has shown no consistency from a health or motivation standpoint, and banking on a player like that would be extremely dangerous, especially with Austin on the fast track for a head coaching gig.
Let Suh walk: We've already seen what this defense can do with Suh and without Austin. If Austin leaves in a year or two, wouldn't the Lions be better off using the $16-17 million a year to improve multiple positions instead of just having Suh?
Okay, so let's say Austin leaves in a year or two. It's possible that the next defensive coordinator could keep this defense at an elite level with Suh, but what if it takes a step back and is more like Schwartz's defenses? Then you're dedicating a significant amount of money to a player anchoring an average defense. Having a player like Suh to work with would definitely be nice, but it would also be nice to have money to spend on other positions on defense. If the coordinator and perhaps the scheme may change down the road anyway, it would be better to have money available to add multiple starters and build depth throughout the defense instead of spending it all on one player.
Re-sign Suh: The Lions know what they're going to get from Suh. If Suh leaves, there's no guarantee that leftover money will go to good use.
Martin Mayhew has certainly made some excellent free-agent signings in recent years, but this is a case of the known vs. the unknown. By re-signing Suh, the Lions would know that they're going to have one of the top defensive tackles in the NFL for the next five or six years, and they would know that he's probably going to be healthy and on the field more often than not. They would also know that Suh will be a force in stopping the run, create constant pressure in the passing game and open up opportunities for his teammates.
With Suh out of the picture, there's extra money to spend, yes, but how is that going to be used? In 2015, for example, are you going to go on a spending spree with that extra money no matter who is available and who actually wants to sign? Using the money to upgrade the offensive line and the secondary would definitely be wise, but what if the players you target sign elsewhere? You run the risk of spending money just for the sake of spending money or having a bunch of unused cap space. Neither option is a good one for a team interested in winning now, and there are just too many variables involved in banking on a bunch of free agents to come in and make up for the loss of Suh.
Let Suh walk: Yes, the Lions know what they're going to get from Suh: concerns about fines and suspensions, not the kind of game-changing impact that a player like Watt brings to the table.
With Suh, there's a worry that even the slightest misstep, whether intentional or not, will result in a massive fine or a suspension. We saw this at the end of the season with Suh briefly being suspended for stepping on Aaron Rodgers. No other player in the NFL would have received that kind of discipline for that kind of incident without any clear proof of intent, yet the NFL tried to suspend him for a playoff game. The appeals process luckily got the suspension reduced to a $70,000 fine, but will Suh be so lucky if this happens again in the future? There's a risk that spending all of this money to re-sign Suh could go to waste because something as minor as a misstep could put him on the sideline for the biggest game of the season.
And in terms of overall impact on the game, Suh comes nowhere close to Watt. In 2014, for example, Watt had a grade of +107.5 (!) on Pro Football Focus. Suh, on the other hand, only received a grade of +27.5, which put him third at defensive tackle. It's true that their roles on defense are different, but that's exactly the point: Watt changes games and consistently makes a direct impact, whereas much of what Suh does is indirect. Suh isn't in Watt's league -- no one in the NFL is right now -- and Suh's new deal should not match or exceed Watt's, which averages $16.7 million a year.
Re-sign Suh: There's definitely some element of risk here, but the same is true for any signing, and Watt's situation is not comparable to Suh's.
Any time you hand out contracts worth as much as we're talking about, there's risk involved. Perhaps Suh's play will degrade faster than anyone expects, perhaps his motivation will disappear or perhaps he will make a mistake and get suspended for a playoff game down the road. Those are all considerations, but the Lions would be mitigating the risk by bringing back a talented player they're already familiar with. The risk associated with trying to replace Suh and then using the money left over wisely is far greater because there are so many variables involved.
And as far as Suh getting a bigger deal than Watt goes, it's really pointless to compare the two situations. In Suh's case, he has all of the leverage in his negotiations with the Lions, especially since the franchise tag is such an unrealistic option due to its cost ($26.9 million for 2015). Watt wasn't on the verge of hitting free agency when he signed his extension, and this is just how things work in sports. A player gets a record-breaking contract, and soon after another player comes along and breaks that record.
Is Suh deserving of more money than Watt? No. Does Suh make more of an overall impact than Watt? No. But that's not what this specific situation is about. It's based on what the market will pay for a player like Suh and what kind of impact Suh has on the Lions, and the assumption here is that it will take the biggest contract for a defensive player in NFL history to get a deal done.
Let Suh walk: At the end of the day, it's just not wise for the Lions to strain the salary cap even more with yet another massive deal.
With the Lions previously signing Calvin Johnson and Matthew Stafford to massive contract extensions, they already have a lot of cap space being dedicated to two players. In 2015, for example, their two contracts alone will account for $38.3 million in cap space. Even if the cap goes up to $143 million, more than a quarter of the Lions' entire salary cap will be set aside for a quarterback and a wide receiver. The situation is even worse in 2016, when the two players will combine for a cap hit of $46.5 million. Adding another big-time contract to the pile will give the Lions even less cap flexibility than they've had in recent years, and it will make it difficult to do anything in free agency going forward.
Re-sign Suh: The cap is expected to go up quite a bit in the next few years, and there are always ways to create extra space.
It's true that re-signing Suh would lessen the Lions' cap flexibility in future years, but there are three things to keep in mind here. For starters, the cap could jump all the way up to $150-160 million in the coming years. That extra space could make re-signing Suh a much more feasible task, especially since you can structure contracts so that cap hits go up and down in certain years.
It's also important to remember that things can change very quickly in the NFL. A big area of concern over re-signing Suh is that the Lions would have three massive deals on the books in the future. This is based on the assumption that Calvin Johnson will have a $24 million cap hit in two years, though. It may seem crazy to suggest this now, but there's no guarantee Johnson will even be on the Lions in two years, let alone at that cost. He's going to be 30 next September, and with all of the injuries he's racked up in recent years, perhaps he will no longer be a player worth that kind of money by the time 2016 rolls around. This could lead to the Lions simply moving on or attempting to restructure Johnson's contract.
Finally, don't forget that there are always ways to create cap space. Whether it's releasing players who are no longer worth their contract, asking guys to take pay cuts or simply kicking the can down the road by restructuring players' deals, there's always flexibility with the cap. Just look at what the Lions have been doing the last few years. Every offseason they seemingly have a limited amount of cap space, yet they always find ways to spend money. Some years there is more flexibility than others, but I'd rather the Lions continue to be a team that spends as much money as possible than one that has a bunch of unused cap space.
Let Suh walk: But that's what put the Lions in this situation in the first place.
The whole strategy of kicking the can down the road isn't exactly sustainable. Sure, you can insist on doing that with certain players, but that's what led to this whole situation with Suh in the first place. His ridiculous cap hit last year was the result of the Lions restructuring his deal to create cap space, and that has made the franchise tag an unrealistic option. Sure, you can part ways with players who are no longer worth their contract, but kicking the can down the road will ultimately lead to more situations like this where flexibility with talented players like Suh is sacrificed for the overall salary cap.
This is a unique, complicated situation with Suh and the Lions. They've put themselves in a spot where he has all of the leverage, and the only way to make sure that he's back for the long term is to sign him to a potentially record-breaking contract. Ultimately, your opinion on what the Lions should do depends on how you feel about the various factors presented above. I'm personally not in favor of letting a perennial All-Pro player walk with the only compensation being a potential compensatory pick in 2016. I would much rather take the risk of having limited cap flexibility in the future than take the risk of trying to replace someone like Suh.
But that's just my opinion. What do you think the Lions should do with Suh? Vote below and leave your thoughts in the comments.