By using the No. 2 overall pick on Ndamukong Suh in 2010 and the No. 13 pick the next season on Nick Fairley, the Detroit Lions laid down two talented building blocks. Both could be gone by next season.
Earlier this offseason, the Lions put Fairley's future in question by declining the fifth-year team option on his rookie contract. Now as of Monday, according to Lions.com reporter Tim Twentyman, the organization has "tabled contract discussions with Ndamukong Suh until after the season," leaving open the possibility that Suh could hit unrestricted free agency in a few months. Even though team president Tom Lewand and GM Martin Mayhew reportedly said they were optimistic about getting Suh's contract extended eventually, the reality is that the Lions have inched even closer toward a total reset along their defensive line.
The Suh situation looms larger, financially and from a football standpoint. Though he draws his fair share of criticism, Suh is without question one of the better defensive tackles in the league -- he was named to both the Pro Bowl and All-Pro teams last season. Word is that he arrived for training camp in immaculate shape, plus apparently will head into the 2014 season armed with contract-year motivation.
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Assuming he does not regress mightily over the coming months, Suh will put the Lions into a self-created salary cap pickle. In order to manage the cap over the past several seasons, Detroit has asked several of its players to restructure their contracts, some on multiple occasions. Suh was among those who agreed. As a result, though, he will count more than $22 million toward the salary cap this season and a potential franchise tag for him next offseason would threaten the Lions with a cap hit of nearly $27 million.
Under any circumstances, for any player, that's a burdensome number.
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The financial situation for Fairley is less of a headache. That fifth-year option for Fairley would have locked Detroit into a $5.5 million payday next season, which Mayhew said Fairley had not earned yet. He may be right there -- Fairley has struggled to stay healthy or consistent.
On the other hand, he is just 26 years old and now heads into his own contract year. A breakthrough performance under those circumstances would be far from unusual ... and it would bring Fairley a salary surpassing that $5.5 million.
The Lions' plan under Mayhew and former head coach Jim Schwartz had been to build out from the interior defensive line, the general belief being that creating pressure up front could minimize any issues in the secondary. Though the Lions defense was better in 2013 than most people believed, that strategy never took off quite as Schwartz envisioned, with Fairley's erratic play part and parcel of the end result.
But if there is a Plan B in the event that both Suh and Fairley bolt next offseason, the Lions do not yet have it in place. Their current backups at defensive tackle include fifth-round draft pick Caraun Reid, journeyman Jimmy Saddler-McQueen and veteran C.J. Mosley (not that C.J. Mosley). Reid may be a fine NFL DT in time; there is nothing in the way of a replacement starting duo in place yet.
The increasingly bleak outlook is why we mentioned in multiple SI.com mock drafts the possibility of Detroit selecting Aaron Donald with the No. 10 overall pick. The Lions opted for tight end Eric Ebron instead, with Donald sliding to No. 13 overall, and already reports out of St. Louis paint the coaching staff there as being blown away by what Donald brings to the table. His presence, or that of another potential young star, would have left the Lions with far more wiggle room in the Suh and Fairley negotiations.
As it stands for the moment, the players hold all the cards: Suh via having established himself as a force in this league, Fairley with the opportunity to price himself out of what Detroit can afford by his 2014 performance.
The odds are that the Lions will find some way to keep at least one of the Suh-Fairley duo in the fold -- they all but have to after committing so many resources to that pairing over the past four years. Keeping both may have been a longshot in the first place, and it is even more of one following Monday's development.
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