Going into the offseason, the Detroit Lions have $126,870,255 committed to their 2015 salary cap, according to the NFLPA. Combined with a carryover of $939,171, the Lions are on the hook for $125,931,084 as of right now. Depending on where the salary cap ends up being set, this leaves the Lions with around $14-17 million in cap space.
The Lions are certainly in a better position cap-wise than in previous years, but they may be on the verge of signing Ndamukong Suh to a long-term deal. That contract could be structured to limit its effect on 2015, but it will still take some kind of a chunk out of their cap space. We also can't forget that the Lions will have to set aside some money for their draft picks, so they aren't exactly in a position to go on a massive spending spree or anything like that.
To create extra cap space, the Lions could simply restructure current players' contracts by kicking the can down the road. That strategy has been employed quite frequently by them in the past, but the simpler solution is for the Lions to just release players. Nate Burleson and Louis Delmas were cap casualties last year, and a few notable players could find themselves on the chopping block this offseason. Let's examine the main candidates:
(Note: All salary data is via Over the Cap.)
LB Stephen Tulloch - Cap hit: $5,800,000 | Savings if cut: $3,200,000
Why would the Lions cut him? After Tulloch tore his ACL last season, the Lions plugged in Tahir Whitehead at middle linebacker, and he played quite well. Since cutting Tulloch would free up more than $3 million in cap space, the thinking is that releasing him might be the best move for the Lions with a replacement ready to go.
Who would replace him? Whitehead is the obvious choice here. He spent most of last season at MLB, and this would allow someone else to step in at Whitehead's original spot at strongside linebacker.
What are the chances of him being cut? I tend to think it's unlikely that the Lions will cut Tulloch. He was really the defense's leader before he went down with his injury, and it's not like he was underperforming. Whitehead did an admirable job of replacing him, but this isn't a situation where Tulloch is well past his prime. As long as the Lions are confident he will return to full strength after tearing his ACL -- there's no reason to expect he won't -- it'd be somewhat surprising if he's released.
RB Reggie Bush - Cap hit: $5,277,941 | Savings if cut: $1,722,058
Why would the Lions cut him? The Lions would only save $1.7 million in cap space by releasing Bush, but this is a move that really goes beyond the salary cap. I say that because Bush has shown an inability to consistently stay on the field. He missed seven games in his first two seasons with the Lions, and he was limited in several more by various injuries. In Tulloch's case, he had never missed a game before suffering a freak injury. In Bush's case, injuries have been a concern throughout his career. Part of that stems from the fact that he's a running back, but considering Bush's biggest asset is his speed, even a minor injury could prevent him from getting the job done.
Who would replace him? Theo Riddick makes the most sense as Bush's replacement. Although Riddick wasn't nearly as effective as Bush in the running game, Riddick was much more consistent as a receiver. Plus, the Lions could draft a running back, giving them another option to go along with starter Joique Bell.
What are the chances of him being cut? If anybody is going to be a cap casualty this offseason, it seems like it will be Bush. Although the potential cap savings aren't that high, Bush seemed like the most ineffective player of this group in 2014, at least when he wasn't completely healthy. Since it was rare for Bush to be completely healthy and running backs always take such a beating, the Lions may decide to move on for football reasons as much as anything.
(Note: Designating Bush as a June 1 cut would eventually save the Lions $3.5 million in cap space for 2015, but it wouldn't do them any good in the short term. I suppose it would make life easier for signing draft picks and things like that, but for free agency, it wouldn't give them extra flexibility.)
DE Jason Jones - Cap hit: $3,983,334 | Savings if cut: $3,150,000
Why would the Lions cut him? Considering Jones was healthy in 2014, this ultimately comes down to a simple question for the Lions: Is another season of Jones or an extra $3 million in cap space more valuable? If the Lions feel like they can adequately replace Jones and still have some of that extra $3 million available, then cutting him would make a lot of sense.
Who would replace him? The Lions are quite deep at defensive end. Devin Taylor had a limited role in 2014, and Larry Webster didn't play at all, but both players are expected to receive more playing time going forward. What's more, if the Lions re-sign George Johnson and Darryl Tapp, one of those guys could potentially step into Jones' starting spot. Losing Jones' ability to play defensive tackle in certain situations would be tough to swallow with the uncertainty there, but I suppose the Lions are going to have to address that position no matter what happens with Jones.
What are the chances of him being cut? It's tough to say. On the one hand, the Lions could save more than $3 million with a limited amount of dead money on the books, and they have a few players who could be ready to step into a starting role at defensive end. On top of that, it's not like Jones made a huge, consistent impact in 2014. Then again, do the Lions want to cut a versatile player who is able to provide extra depth at multiple spots on the D-line? And do they want to potentially create a need for a pass rusher? If I had to guess, I would say that Jones is more likely to be a cap casualty than Tulloch but less likely than Bush. That's just a guess, though, because the Lions have not provided any hints about who may or may not be a cap casualty this offseason.