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Notes: Updating the Detroit Lions’ current 2021 salary cap situation

Several announced moves and a bigger carryover helps, but not enough

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Cleveland Browns v Detroit Lions

Free agency crunch time is approaching, and the Detroit Lions have already begun to make some moves in spite of a nerves-inducingly high current payroll. Several pieces of new information became available this week, so it seems worth checking in to figure out what the team’s situation looks like before the weekend.

On Thursday, the final carryover of unused cap value from the 2020 league year was announced and the Lions actually came out looking even better than previously believed. This carryover amount can be used as a credit by the team in 2021, so it effectively raises the cap-safe payroll maximum for the Lions this year.

Using the Over The Cap’s current Top 51 salaries for the Detroit Lions of $182,288,491 as a starting point, we make a few adjustments (minor things look a little off for Jashon Cornell, Nick Bawden, and Matt Wright) to really start with $182,358,491.

A few actual player personnel decisions were announced by the Lions earlier this week, with three exclusive rights free agent (ERFA) tenders and two larger contract decisions. One thing to check and verify is whether the ERFA tenders to Jason Cabinda, Jack Fox, and Matt Nelson are already taken into account. It turns out Over The Cap’s current total cap liabilities for the Lions does in fact have updated expected cap values for them, which are the new CBA’s league minimum P5 salaries given their credited service years:

Cabinda shows up at $920,000 while both Fox and Nelson are on there at $780,000. OTC’s table, then, already has Cabinda at the three-year veteran minimum and the other two at the 1-year minimum.

Former Las Vegas Raiders receiver Tyrell Williams is expected to sign a deal with the team that has a base paragraph 5 (P5) salary of $4.7 million and a “maximum value” of $6.2 million. The language chosen in the reports seems to suggest there is an additional $1.5 million in not-expected-to-be-earned incentives in the contract structure that will not count as part of the initial Lions cap number for Williams (until he actually earns it). With no further information at this time, we will assume the $4.7 million is what counts against the cap, though there will likely be at least some expected-to-be-earned bonuses above and beyond the P5 salary. This puts the Lions at ($182,358,491 + $4,700,000) = $187,058,491.

Furthermore, the Lions announced they intend to release veteran cornerback Desmond Trufant. If he is released at the start of the league year as has been reported, that is a pre-June 1 cut that accelerates all of his remaining cap obligations by the Lions into the 2021 season. Of his $9.5 million P5 salary, $3.5 million is guaranteed and remains on the books along with $2.5 million in prorated bonus for a total of $6 million in dead money for Trufant’s terminated contract. That will save the team $6,187,500 by taking his $12,187,500 cap number for 2021 off the Top 51 salaries while increasing dead money by $6 million. The Top 51 payroll—we’ll come back to the dead money later— is thus ($187,058,491 - $12,187,500) = $174,870,991.

The team is projected by Over the Cap to spend $7,349,144 on contracts for the rookies selected with draft picks they currently possess. Of those draft picks, the first five will make enough on their rookie deal to push one of the existing contracts off the Top 51 list (note that adding Williams but removing Trufant left the Top 51 unchanged up to this point).

Adding the first five picks brings us up to $181,507,623, but then we now displace two $660,000 contracts and three $780,000 contracts at the bottom of the list to come back down to $177,847,623. The final element, alluded to above when the effect of Trufant’s contract was considered, is dead money. The Lions will have $26,119,402 in dead money from moves involving Stafford, Okwara, Huntley, and Trufant, putting us at ($177,847,623 + $26,119,402) = $203,967,025.

Just suppose the Lions were willing to use the entire cap carryover amount of $15.2 million. We are still looking at a Top 51 contracts based cap number of ($203,967,025 - $15,200,000) = $188,767,025 on the books to be compared against the league’s final maximum cap number for 2021. The league has announced a minimum payroll for 2021 (i.e. teams must spend at least that much to satisfy the NFLPA union), but no maximum cap value (what fans are actually interested in since it purportedly limits signings for competitive balance) yet.

Keep in mind the final maximum cap number last season was $198.2 million. This is expected to fall in 2021 due to declining revenues, so the Lions have very little room to maneuver even after accounting for the full increased carryover from 2020. This all but guarantees we will see more announced releases and possibly a restructure (or two) in the coming days, especially considering there’s that nice Golladay fellow who the team hasn’t acted on yet.

Now, on to the rest of today’s Notes:

  • Maybe not spending too much in free agency could be a good thing for the Lions? Brad Spielberger at Pro Football Focus wrote an article (subscription required) checking the Wins Above Replacement (WAR) performance earned by free agents signed to each team against the guaranteed money paid to said free agents across the last five years. The plot shown for the NFC is in quadrants with the left-right scale being money spent and top-bottom scale being WAR earned. You want to be in the top left (plenty WAR, little spent), but the expectation is to be in the lower left (little WAR, little spent) or upper right (lots of WAR at high cost). The Lions are in the lower right.

  • We mentioned this item yesterday, but now everyone can watch the entire 15-minute Dan Patrick Show interview with head kneecap biter Dan Campbell from Thursday:

  • I don’t think I need to tell anybody why this is really cool:

  • Some interesting quarterback analysis by Pro Football Network’s Mike Tanier featured throws behind the line of scrimmage. Two names of note showed up on some of the lists: Justin Herbert of the Los Angeles Chargers and new Lions starter Jared Goff. On a list ranking quarterbacks by how many of their completions were behind the line of scrimmage in 2020, Herbert was seventh and Goff was 10th. Herbert, who was new Lions’ offensive coordinator Anthony Lynn’s starter last season, had the fifth-highest completion percentage and tied for the fifth-most yards on such throws. Perhaps the screen game and backs/tight ends in the flat will be a prominent feature of the 2021 Detroit offense?

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