The current situation
As it stands today, the Lions have just north of $20 million ($20,476,371 to be exact) in cap space going into 2016 if the cap raises to the estimated $150 million. That's even with a massive $46 million payout to just Calvin Johnson and Matthew Stafford. The bad news is that it also only accounts for 39 of 53 necessary players for the roster, so they still have some work to do. The Lions could create some extra space by cutting a few aging players and restructuring a few others. There are also some big questions surrounding key positions, but the overall health of the franchise, financially speaking, is pretty strong--maybe the best it's been in years.
When I look at the state of the roster I'll try my best to take an outsider's look at the franchise, much like a new General Manager (GM) would.
"You're paying him what?!" (The first wave of cuts)
At first glance there are some really easy cuts to make. As a new GM I want to put my stamp on this team and this includes cutting longtime, homegrown Lions.
The first guys I'd call upstairs would be Stephen Tulloch (due $7.3 million), Brandon Pettigrew (due $4.65 million), Joique Bell (due $3.5 million) and CJ Wilson (due $2.3 million). With dead money included, that adds an additional $14,450,000 in cap space bringing me up to $34,926,371 in cap space.
The tough decisions (The second wave of cuts)
I can create even more cap room if I want, but the thing to remember is that a cut body needs to be replaced. That replacement could be cheaper, but he also could be more expensive or even not as good of a player.
Looking over the Lions roster a key weakness heading into 2016 is the secondary. Darius Slay is a budding star. Glover Quin is solid player capable of having All Pro type seasons. And Quandre Diggs looks like he can be solid option at the nickel spot, but outside of those three there are lots of questions. That's what makes these next two cuts such hard decisions. But at the end of the day, they have to be made.
Rashean Mathis has been an absolute solid pro since coming to the Lions, but he's coming off a serious brain injury and will be 36 before the 2016 season starts. At his current rate of $1.875 million he's just too expensive to bring back, despite being a great pro and teammate. The other secondary guy I have to let go is Don Carey. He's been a decent player, mainly on special teams, for the last few years, but he offers little as a depth player and is due just over $1 million in 2016.
Those two cuts bring the Lions total cap space up to $37,236,371 in cap space.
One of the hardest choices I have is what to do with Calvin Johnson. His current contract is an absolute anomaly. His $24 million cap hit in 2016 is the most expensive on the team and is currently the fifth most expensive cap hit of all players in the league. The good news is that I have a few options here:
I can cut Calvin and save $11 million on this year's cap.
I can redo his contract and ask him to take a paycut, similarly to what the Cardinals did with Larry Fitzgerald last offseason.
I could do a simple restructure of his contract to bring down his cap number in 2016, but increase it in later years.
Or I could simply bite the bullet and pay him his designated $24 million and revisit the situation in 2015 when his dead money goes from $12.9 million to $4.8 million.
My best option is to convince Calvin to take a pay cut and redo his current contract. Johnson is outside his prime by at least two years and will never get back to his 2012-13 form. But that doesn't mean he's still not one of the ten best receivers in the league. The toughest part of all of this is figuring out what his current value should be.
On the open market, he'd easily be the best free agent receiver available. So the next step is to try and find comparable contracts. Larry Fitzgerald took his deal down to $11 million per year last offseason. Andre Johnson took an open market deal of around $7 per year. The top market young receivers are making around $14 million (nearly $10 million less than Johnson's 2016 cap hit). My guess is a Johnson would receive around $11-$13 million per year deal on the open market. That's the spot I'd aim for when starting those negotiations.
In my mind trying to redo the deal is a smarter way to save around $10 million than just outright cutting him. That gives me several months to try and work out a deal and if nothing happens, I still have around $37 million to sign 20 players, several of whom will be on cheap rookie contracts after the draft.
What to do with Riley...
There's an epidemic plaguing the NFL, and it's horrible offensive line play. If anyone knows about this it's the Lions. They started the 2015 season with one of the worst offensive lines in the NFL. One of the problems on the line is Riley Reiff. He was drafted to be the replacement for longtime Lion Jeff Backus at left tackle, but has shown little growth in his three years as a starter. Reiff is currently under the fifth-year option from his rookie contract and is set to make just shy of $8 million in 2016, but none of it is guaranteed.
There has been constant talk of where he fits best along the line; left tackle, right tackle, or even guard since he came into the league. And those same questions remain for me today. It's tough for me to swallow paying a below average player $8 million dollars next season, but with few possible free agent options we might just be desperate enough to do it.
My hope would be to talk to the coaching staff and figure out what they think of him. If they think he can grow into a serviceable left tackle it may be worth looking at resigning him to a longer term deal to bring his cap number down. If not, we may have to hold onto the contract until after the draft and them make the decision. As of now I'm keeping Rieff and his contract.
Free Agents to resign
There are several guys from last year's team that will most likely make it back to the 90-man training camp roster, but only a few that have a shot at making the 53-man roster. Of those few here are the guys I'm targeting to resign:
DT - Haloti Ngata: He's not his former self, but he played some really good football towards the end of the year after getting healthy. He's aging and a little expensive, but we don't have many other options. I'd sign him for a deal for around $5-$7 million per year.
DT - Tyrunn Walker: An early season injury derailed what could have been a very productive season for Walker. His injury could limit his free agent market. I'd sign him to a deal around $1-$2 million per year.
DE - Jason Jones: He's a versatile, albeit not spectacular, defensive lineman. He signed a deal averaging $3 million per year in 2013. He's now older and has had a major injury during that time. I'd sign him to a deal around $1-$3 million per year.
SAF - Isa Abdul-Quddus: A potential starter. This guy is at the top of my list. He not only has shown he can make solid contributions on defense, but he also plays meaningful snaps on special teams as well. I'd sign him to a deal around $2-$3 million per year.
OG/OC - Manny Ramirez: On a team with so much offensive line disfunction this guy is invaluable to have. He was the only veteran in that offensive line room last season and could play a pivotal role in 2016. I'd target to sign him to a deal around $1-$2 million per year.
Signing those five players bring my cap space to around 23.5 million in cap space, and leaves 15 players left to sign in free agency and the draft.
The missing pieces
Resigning a few players helps, but there are still some major holes to fill. Here are the remaining needs as I see them:
Left Tackle of the future
2nd/3rd Tight End