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2021 Lions free agency: Updating the current salary cap situation

After a week of moves, what more can the team afford?

Colorado Rockies v Detroit Tigers Photo by Leon Halip/Getty Images

Entering last week’s open market, the Detroit Lions were not in very good shape regarding either their cap situation or their roster situation. The team was expected to release a number of veteran players to open up cap space, but until such moves were actually made there was no way to know how much cap flexibility would be available or how many replacement players (possibly starters) would be needed for the 2021 roster.

As announcements with personnel moves began to roll in, things gradually cleared up. To catch up on the events of the last eight days and get situated for another week of free agency, let’s apply these changes and see where the team is at right now.

Remember, the league maximum salary cap for 2021 is $182.5 million and the Lions have $15.2 million in unspent 2020 cap space carried over from last season. That gives the team an absolute upper bound of $197.7 million they are not allowed to exceed.

Active Contracts

The first major effect of signings from last week is that it shuffles the top 51 salaries that count toward the cap. Players who were released leave the top 51, newly-signed players arriving in free agency join the top 51, and some players already on the roster but near the bottom of the ranked salary list get pushed below the top 51 cutoff.

Among players already connected to the team, the releases of Chase Daniel and Danny Shelton were announced on Monday, moving both of them out of the top 51. Meanwhile, Don Muhlbach, Romeo Okwara, and Jalen Reeves-Maybin all signed new deals, putting the three back on Detroit’s top 51.

Newly-acquired players joining the team’s top 51 from elsewhere last week were headlined by defensive tackle Michael Brockers, but the team added a number of modestly-priced veteran replacements for key spots: wide receiver Breshad Perriman, kicker Randy Bullock, backup quarterback Tim Boyle, running back Jamaal Williams, and edge rusher Charles Harris all make the cutoff.

Of those named players, only Tim Boyle does not yet appear on the list of contracted players at Over The Cap’s Lions page. Adding him moves another of the six minimum salary contracts for players on the team with two credited seasons ($780,000) below the cutoff.

Additionally, Nick Williams reportedly took a pay cut reducing his base salary and shifting around some of his bonuses, resulting in a new 2021 cap hit of $2,968,750, which saves the team $2,681,250 in cap space.

Incoming Draft Class

Over The Cap recently revised their draft pick contract projections, accounting for the league’s salary cap announcement. Applying the revisions and new information that the Lions received pick number 101 instead of 88 from the Los Angeles Rams yields a new expected draft class cap cost. As before, only the contracts of the first five selections held by the Lions are expected to be among the top 51 on the team when they are signed.

Adding the five draft picks moves the other four minimum salary contracts for players with two credited seasons off the board plus Hunter Bryant as the final excluded player. Bryant’s regular “paragraph 5” salary is also the minimum for players with two credited seasons but he has a small prorated bonus ($6,666) as well.

With all of the above adjustments for veteran player additions and subtractions plus the five rookie contract spots, the Lions’ expected top 51 contracts total after the draft are $150,654,799 at the moment.

Dead Money

The team already had a bunch of dead money from the Matthew Stafford trade and previously announced releases, but releasing Daniel and Shelton last week added another $4.25 million to the tally. After adding in those hits and a number of small prorations (from last year that sum up to less than $200,000), the Lions have about $43.3 million in dead money for the 2021 season. It is a little imprecise due to uncertainty about some of the small prorations, but this is close enough for our purposes.

The bottom line: Not swell

That means the Lions’ expected cap obligations including known contracts, expected draft class contracts, and approximate dead money for the season comes in at ($150.7 million + $43.2 million) = $193.9 million give or take a hundred thousand dollars. This is right up against the $197.7 million absolute maximum we talked about at the top of this article, which included both the league cap limit and their 2020 carryover.

What do the roster needs look like now?

If we go back to the free agency preview by our duo of Erik Schlitt and Jeremy Reisman, we can see the Lions still have some issues to address in terms of personnel:

  • QB: Done with Tim Boyle signing. It’ll be Boyle and Blough behind Goff.
  • RB: Mostly done, thanks to the Jamaal Williams signing, but Lions might want one more.
  • WR: Top two receivers are now Breshad Perriman and Tyrell Williams. Could still use a true number one receiver who would cost a lot in free agency, so drafting one early is a strong possibility.
  • TE: Probably done, now that Detroit has Josh Hill, Hunter Bryant, and Alize Mack backing up Hock.
  • OL: Losing Aboushi and Dahl opens a vacancy at an interior OL depth position, but this group is mostly set.
  • DL: Easily the biggest moves so far adding Brockers and Harris while bringing back Romeo. The big question mark is what to do at the nose, which makes releasing Shelton a bit of a puzzler.
  • LB: The same dumpster fire we all remember. All the team has done so far is bring back special teams contributor Jalen Reeves-Maybin. This group still needs lots of love.
  • CB: Bringing back Ford provides at least one backup behind Oruwariye and Okudah, but the Lions need at least two or three more. Moreover, the team still does not appear to have a starting slot corner.
  • S: Unless the team is willing to roll with Will Harris and Tracy Walker as a full-time pair, the team needs one or two more safeties — preferably at least one who might compete for substantial playing time.
  • Specialists: Muhlbach and Bullock have this covered.

Going forward, the team still needs to do something at WR, NT, LB, CB, S, and could use another RB. That’s a lot of issues to address with just six draft picks and hardly any cushion to sign any more free agents. Given the team’s expected cap situation with what’s already on the books, expect one or more moves to open up additional space to work with.

Possible actions include restructures for Jared Goff, Trey Flowers, or Halapoulivaati Vaitai. Jamie Collins already worked with the team to restructure his contract, so those are the only restructures left that could possibly yield significant savings. The Lions have already cut seven out of the eight potential salary cap casualty contracts identified by Reisman a month ago, with the last one being Williams, who took a pay cut.

In the medium-term, the Lions are up against a financial wall with just under four million in cap space and some pretty hefty defensive needs. It would be surprising to see Brad Holmes sign a big-ticket free agent of any kind at this point, but you never know. Even one major restructure could open enough cap room to actually make a significant signing possible.

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