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What if the Detroit Lions had re-signed Ndamukong Suh in 2015?

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Would the Lions be better off right now had they re-signed Ndamukong Suh in 2015?

Minnesota Vikings v Detroit Lions Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images

The 2015 offseason was one of the most pivotal for the Detroit Lions as a franchise. Coming off a season that ended in heartbreaking fashion—narrowly losing Wild Card Weekend to the Cowboys, after nearly winning their first playoff game in two decades—the Lions faced some major roster decisions.

None were more important than their attempt to re-sign All Pro defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh. Ultimately, the Lions lost out on Suh, and the Miami Dolphins signed the game-changing defensive tackle to a six-year, $114 million deal. Reportedly, the Lions were close to matching that offer, but ultimately chose it was too much to spend on their former No. 2 overall pick.

But what if Martin Mayhew had decided that he was worth it? This week, SB Nation sites are asking “What if?” regarding some of the biggest events in each franchise’s recent history. We know Suh didn’t work out in Miami, but what if the Lions had re-signed Suh back in 2015?

Defensive performance

In Suh’s final year in Detroit, the Lions had one of the best defenses in the league. They ranked third in overall DVOA, and first in run defense. They allowed the third-fewest points, ninth-lowest passer rating and the fewest yards per carry in the entire league.

After Suh left, the defense absolutely collapsed. They dropped to 16th in DVOA, 23rd in points allowed and 19th in yards per carry allowed.

Of course, there were other factors in play that resulted in this huge drop in performance. Pro Bowl linebacker DeAndre Levy was hit saddled with numerous injuries that would eventually end his career. He would only play in six more games after Suh left for Miami. Additionally, the Lions lost other important pieces of their defense, including Nick Fairley, C.J. Mosley, and Andre Fluellen.

Still, the loss of Suh was felt dearly on the Lions’ defense, and they still haven’t rebounded since. If Suh were still on the roster, they would have undoubtedly remained competitive on defense.

Salary cap ramifications

It’s obvious the team would have been better with Suh, but at what cost? Let’s take a look at the deal Suh got at Miami as a baseline. Here’s what it originally looked like:

Cap hits:

2015 - $6.1 million
2016 - $28.6 million
2017 - $15.1 million
2018: $22.1 million
2019: $24.1 million
2020: $18.4 million

However, the Dolphins had to restructure that deal almost immediately, and here’s what it looked like after altering the deal in the 2016 offseason:

2015 - $6.1 million
2016 - $12.6 million
2017 - $19.1 million
2018: $26.1 million
2019: $28.1 million
2020: $22.4 million

Early on, Suh’s contract was extremely manageable and was actually cheaper than the Lions ended up spending on the position. Detroit immediately went out and traded for Haloti Ngata, who was carrying a huge $8.5 million cap hit in 2015.

But those saving would have been short-lived. The Lions were able to re-sign Ngata at just a $4.2 million cap hit the next year, while Suh would’ve cost them nearly seven times that.

And that would have had a drastic impact on the Lions’ roster, especially considering what happened in the following offseason.

Roster differences

In order to compensate for the loss of Suh, the Lions immediately went out and traded for veteran Ngata. With Suh on the roster, there’s no way the Lions would have spent a fourth and fifth-round pick for Ngata.

But acquiring Suh would have created a butterfly effect on the entire Lions roster.

When Suh’s contract was set to take a huge spike in price, the Lions would have been even more devastated by the retirement of Calvin Johnson after the 2015 season. In reality, the Lions were able to go out and aggressively pursue Marvin Jones Jr. and eventually sign him to a five-year, $40 million contract. With Suh’s contract on the books, the Lions wouldn’t have been able to make that deal happen. If they were able to somehow squeeze the contract on the books—again, they wouldn’t have—Detroit would have had to restructure the deal similarly to the way Miami did, which would have made Suh unaffordable from 2018 and beyond—basically guaranteeing that Suh would be off the roster after three years—but still remain on the books.

So without Jones on the roster, the Lions’ could have addressed the wide receiver vacancies in a few different ways. They could have gone after a lesser free agency, but there wasn’t much available there. It’s more likely that they would have altered their draft strategy. Detroit ended up drafting A’Shawn Robinson that year in the second round, but with Suh and without Jones, maybe they end up taking Michael Thomas, who went to the Saints with the very next pick (and made the Pro Bowl in 2017).

And as Suh’s cap hits would continue to rise, it would have continually hurt Detroit’s chances to make splashes in the offseason. As is, the Lions have been pretty cap strapped because of the dead money on the books from DeAndre Levy and Calvin Johnson. Add Suh’s monster contract to that, and it’s hard to see the Lions making aggressive plays for Rick Wagner or T.J. Lang.

Where would they be now?

If Suh had re-signed with the Lions, the short-term reward may have been big. In 2015, the Lions went 7-9 after a horrid 1-7 start. With Suh in the mix, that probably doesn’t happen, and they could have even made a playoff run that year. Of course, if the Lions were competent that year, it also likely means that Joe Lombardi doesn’t get fired midseason, Martin Mayhew may keep his job—for another year—and Detroit doesn’t decide to blow up the management of the entire franchise.

But the salary cap ramifications would have a huge negative impact just a year into Suh’s new contract. The Lions would have had to stay put during free agency, which means no Marvin Jones, no T.J. Lang, no Rick Wagner.

Worst of all, the Lions would eventually come to the same conclusion that the Dolphins did this year: Suh is just not worth that kind of deal. So the Lions would have had to move on from Suh this offseason, leaving them in an even worse situation at defensive tackle than they’re currently at. A’Shawn Robinson likely doesn’t get drafted, so there’s no long-term replacement in place, and Haloti Ngata wouldn’t have been here in the first place.

So what if the Lions had re-signed Suh back in 2015? They would have been far worse off in the long-term, even if there was some room for short-term gains.