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How much can the Detroit Lions still spend on remaining free agents?

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Quite a bit, actually.

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The second wave of free agency began when the clock struck midnight in the transition from Tuesday to Wednesday because new signings no longer count against the compensatory pick formula. Normally, when a team loses players to free agency who are deemed to be “better” (according to playing time and postseason awards in the upcoming season and the value of their contracts) when compared against the players that team gained in free agency, they are awarded free compensatory picks in the next draft. As of Wednesday, newly signed players no longer count as gains for that comparison in the current league year.

Many experts believe this is what high-end free agents who have not yet signed with a team were waiting for. Skilled veterans with high price tags are back in demand now that each club knows what their incoming draft class contains and their camp body lists are stocked with UDFAs. Our own Jeremy Reisman has already speculated on a possible signing the Lions could pursue in his latest roster projection: former New England linebacker Jamie Collins.

The Lions may very well go after a big name or two, given their ample cap space on the books. According to Spotrac, the team is sitting at around $26 million in cap space after accounting for the top 51 contracts. Looking to OverTheCap.com, a similar value of about $27 million in effective cap space appears on the Detroit line. The NFLPA reports the Lions at $27.7 million, so who knows what the precise value is down to the dollar. Regardless of which of these fine sites we consult, it is a pretty big amount.

Hold on, though — the team has not yet signed its rookie class. Assuming general manager Bob Quinn will naturally sign the players Detroit spent valuable draft choice on, the current salary cap values on the book are not really what the front office can use in free agent negotiations. Once we remove the amounts expected to be spent on signing those rookies, we might have a better idea of whether bringing back Ndamukong Suh on a one-year deal is actually realistic.

2019 Detroit Lions Rookie Pool

Round Pick Player Position OverTheCap Estimate Potentially replaced contract Player Salary cap effect
Round Pick Player Position OverTheCap Estimate Potentially replaced contract Player Salary cap effect
1 8 TJ Hockenson TE $3,603,860 $574,000 Brandon Powell $3,029,860
2 43 Jahlani Tavai LB $1,253,448 $641,920 Charles Washington $611,528
3 81 Will Harris DB $733,062 $645,000 Eric Lee $88,062
4 117 Austin Bryant DE $678,157 $645,000 Andy Jones $33,157
5 146 Amani Oruwariye CB $575,833 $645,000 Jerome Cunningham $0
6 184 Travis Fulgham WR $539,708 $685,000 Connor Cook $0
6 186 Ty Johnson RB $538,139 $685,000 Andrew Donnal $0
7 224 Isaac Nauta TE $520,113 $709,591 Jamal Agnew $0
7 229 PJ Johnson DT $519,128 $720,000 Darius Kilgo $0
Total $8,961,448 $3,762,607
Estimated rookie cap figures and effect on Top-51 cap total OverTheCap.com

Using data from OverTheCap’s rookie pool estimates, which project the contract terms of each draft slot, we have the results in the table above. Starting with the 51st contract on the roster (Brandon Powell) and comparing it to the most expensive rookie (T.J. Hockenson), we can see if the new contract is more expensive than the one it might replace. In the case of Hockenson and Powell, the answer is yes. Once we get further down the list, though, Amani Oruwariye’s contract would not carry a higher 2019 cap value than Jerome Cunningham’s contract. Cunningham would remain the 47th highest contract at that point, and the same would be true of the remaining rookies.

Adjusting both the Spotrac and OverTheCap effective cap values with the estimated $3.76 million net change due to rookie signings, we arrive at somewhere in the neighborhood of $22.3 million (Spotrac) to $23.3 million (OverTheCap) in actually available cap room for the Lions to sign new free agents. Naturally, the next free agent signed would probably be making more than Jerome Cunningham, so we should account for that “extra” $645,000 and bottom-line it at $23 million to $24 million in free agency monies.

Of course, the team could decide to save the money and roll it over to the 2020 league year: they brought $6.46 million over from the 2018 cap into the 2019 league year, which is creating some of the space the Lions have now. As for me, I say forget finding a stopgap 3-tech — someone get Suh’s agent on the line and bring back the 2014 glory days.