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Projecting possible solutions to the stalemate between Darius Slay and the Lions

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Diving into the details of how the Lions and their star cornerback can come to an agreement.

NFL: Detroit Lions at Arizona Cardinals Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

In the NFL, deadlines spur action. From the start of the official league year and the timing of a player options, to roster cut downs and IR return designations, flurries of action can always be found around deadlines.

As the first hard deadline of the NFL offseason schedule came and went this week with teams conducting their mandatory minicamps, action — or perhaps more appropriately, inaction — on the part of a handful of NFL players was taken in the form of official holdouts. Of course, this brings us to what has now become an increasingly-pervasive topic each summer: leverage.

Perhaps the most fascinating aspect about contractual leverage, as it relates to the NFL and its labor force, is that it’s completely contrived. It’s fake. It simply doesn’t exist. For leverage to exist in a negotiation, one must assume that an advantage can be gained by both sides to the point where the other would inherit a substantial negative outcome. Given the power vested in NFL ownership via the current collective bargaining agreement, the dynamic between teams and players at the negotiating table can be that of a hammer and a nail. The hammer may choose to work with the nail, but they always know talks can be ended with one swing.

With that, let’s take a look at holdout situation between Darius Slay and the Lions, and start to piece together a couple scenarios for how the two sides can reach an amicable agreement.

Slay’s Leverage

The tiny 5 percent sliver of bargaining power that is real and tangible resides in two components for Darius Slay:

  1. His value to the roster as an elite, shut-down corner — an integral piece that unlocks the versatility required for Matt Patricia's scheme to operate at a winning level.
  2. The serious argument that can be made that he’s the one of the most, if not the most, underpaid elite players in the NFL who isn’t still on a rookie contract.

There are 22 cornerbacks who’ve played each of the past three seasons on a non-rookie deal, and had cap hits of at least 1 percent of the league salary cap each year. Slay was one of those 22. However, due to the structure of his current deal, his average cap hit percentage since 2016 ranks just 15th among that group.

In fact, if you narrow those parameters down to just the past two seasons, Slay falls even further down the list to 19th out of 35 players.

There is not a corner on either list who has definitively put together a better two or three-year stretch of play than Slay has since 2016, which has manifested in two Pro Bowl trips and a First-Team All-Pro selection in 2017.

Yet, the fact that the financial relationship between Slay and the Lions organization has gotten to this point should come as no surprise. When the details of his four-year extension were released in the summer of 2016, the team-friendliness of the deal’s figures jumped off the page.

When inked, the contract made the former second round pick the seventh-highest paid, non-franchised cornerback in the league based on its $12 million APY (average cash paid per year, not including incentives).

Slay’s APY was $3 million lower than that of Josh Norman — who signed against the same $155.27 million 2016 league salary cap just a couple of months earlier. It was also $2 million less than the contracts signed by Patrick Peterson and Richard Sherman, who signed against a 2014 league salary cap that was 14.3 percent lower than what Slay signed against. Given that his deal was behind the APY-eight ball from the start, and when taking into account the insatiable rate of annual increase in the salary cap, the earning power of Slay’s contract hasn’t just been left in the dust — it never even had a chance to keep up.

Last week, the NFLPA’s Executive Director DeMaurice Smith sent notice to every agent in the league stating they need prepare their clients for a work stoppage of at least a year, starting in 2020. The news couldn’t have come at a worst time for Slay, who — after grinding out three years of a modest rookie contract and the first three team-friendly years of his current extension — finally has two cash-rich (but non-guaranteed) seasons on the horizon.

Detroit’s signing of free agent Trey Flowers to a $90 million deal with a $50 million signing bonus this offseason is another factor that shouldn’t be ignored. The Lions have received six excellent seasons of service from Darius Slay, but at a total cap impact of $25,020,552 — an average of just 2.56 percent of their adjusted team salary cap figures since drafting him. With the organization throwing money around all spring, and with all the uncertainty that lies ahead for Detroit’s best defensive player, can anyone really blame Slay for firmly believing the time for a new extension is now?

Detroit’s Leverage

  1. The entirety of the Collective Bargaining Agreement. That’s it. The “hammer”, if you will. They don’t even have to acknowledge the existence of Slay’s request for a new deal, let alone acquiesce in any capacity.

Slay has already forgone his $250,000 offseason workout bonus this spring (which Detroit will receive cap credit for in 2020), and the CBA gives the Lions the ability to render fines totaling $88,650 for his absence at the team’s minicamp this week. Furthermore, and while it rarely comes to this, the team can fine him $40,000 for each day of training camp he misses, and they can dock him full game checks for missed preseason games as well. If the situation were to get completely out of control, and Slay decided to sit out the 2019 season, his contract would simply toll — meaning he wouldn’t move through to the final year of his deal. Essentially, both sides would be in the same spot they are in now.

Solutions

If the Lions are truly beginning the transition into “win now” mode, then their firm stance on negotiating contracts early needs to be softened. If it sets a precedent, then so be it. You can have a lot worse problems than the threshold for early contact negotiation in your organization becoming: “I’ve given you six seasons, become arguably your best player, and ascended to an All-Pro level while being paid a fraction of my market value”.

Here are two potential outcomes for how the Slay contract saga could, and should play out. But first, there are some important figures to keep in mind:

  • $15,934,375 - Slay’s current 2019 salary cap number
  • $12.8 million — the amount of cash Slay can earn in 2019, now that his workout bonus has been forfeited.
  • $13,034,375 - the amount of 2019 cap space the Lions would gain by cutting or trading Slay
  • $5.8 million — the amount of dead money that cutting or trading Slay would create ($2.9 million in 2019, and $2.9 million in 2020).

(1.) The band-aid fix

Naturally, a label like this signals that it wouldn’t be the ideal solution for either side, nor would it conclude the matter entirely. But, this avenue would display copious amounts of good faith from both sides. Here’s an overview of the restructure:

Here’s how it works:

  • $6 million of Slay’s $12.55 million 2019 salary is converted into a signing bonus, with the rest being guaranteed at signing.
  • $6 million of his 2020 salary is converted into an option bonus that is guaranteed before the start of the 2020 league year.
  • Three voidable years are tacked onto the end of the deal for proration purposes.
  • Slay’s forfeited $250,000 workout bonus is added back onto 2019 as a training camp reporting bonus.
  • Slay’s $250,000 in 2019 per-game bonuses are eliminated.
  • A $3 million incentive supplement is added to 2019.

Although it appears complex, all this restructure does is essentially keep the same deal in place, but provide Slay with two things:

  1. The opportunity to earn an additional $3 million in 2019 through incentives.
  2. Guaranteed, up front cash.

Slay would no longer have to worry about being cut or traded throughout the rest of the contract, and he’d receive a large chunk of his 2020 cash prior to any potential work stoppage.

For the Lions, this deal would provide:

  1. $4,434,375 in additional 2019 cap space.
  2. $3.3 million in 2020 cap space
  3. The comfort of knowing that only $600,000 of the 2019 incentives would count on this year’s cap. If Slay earned any of the other $2.4 million currently classified as “not likely to be earned”, it would reflect as a debit on the team’s 2020 adjusted cap figure. If he failed to earn any of the incentives, they’d receive a $600,000 credit on next year’s cap.
  4. Somewhat of a “we stuck to our guns” mentality towards the negotiation, since no additional years or hard cash was added to the contract, and having only given up future flexibility on a cornerstone player who they likely had every intention of keeping through 2020 anyway.

If the two sides are unable to reach another extension after the 2020 season, the Lions would inherit $8.1 million in 2021 dead money.

(2.) The long-term fix

Why mess around? If Detroit wants to lock down arguably the best cornerback in the conference through his age-32 season, here’s what it could look like:

It would be a three-year, $45.7 million extension through 2023. Including incentives that would begin in 2020, the total value of the contract would be $71 million, $42 million of which would be fully guaranteed at signing. That guaranteed total would consist of an $18 million signing bonus, a $3.5 million roster bonus due next March, and his 2019, 2020, and 2021 salaries.

For the Lions, the extension would create $7,434,375 in 2019 cap space. And if the plan is to eventually extend Slay well into the future anyways, getting a deal done now against a $188.2 million league cap would make a lot of sense, as it’ll likely be north of $200 million by next offseason, and they could very well be negotiating against a completed Jalen Ramsey deal as opposed to the one just inked by Miami’s Xavien Howard.

When all is said and done, this entire exercise could prove fruitless. Without any real contractual leverage, Slay is at the mercy of the organization. And honestly, would anyone be surprised if the Lions opted for the third solution — to do nothing at all?

Follow Brian Phillips on Twitter @BPhillips_SB