A franchise tag for Ndamukong Suh this coming offseason would cost the Detroit Lions nearly $27 million. So with that option all but off the table, it appears that the two sides are headed for a split.
ESPN's Adam Schefter reported Sunday that "the Lions are preparing to lose free-agent-to-be DT Ndamukong Suh and he is preparing to move on," mentioning that Suh would be interested in playing for one of the New York teams. Schefter added that the Bears and Cowboys likely would pursue the standout defensive tackle, should he hit the market.
The Lions and Suh never made much progress on offseason contract talks, mainly because Suh held all the leverage given that franchise-tag price. They then put those talks on hold in July, agreeing to wait until after the 2014 season to renew them.
"I think it's the right thing for us to do," Lions president Tom Lewand said. "It's the right thing for the team. It's the right thing for everybody involved and it allows us to keep the focus where it belongs."
Detroit stands to take a dead-money salary cap hit of $9.7 million next season regardless because of the way Suh's contract was previously restructured -- technically, Suh remains under contract through 2015, but he can void that final year.
Suh already holds the title of highest-paid defensive tackle in the league, at around $12.6 million annually. (He can thank the previous CBA for that; the new rookie-contract structure slots draft picks in at far more reasonable salaries.) Geno Atkins inked a five-year, $55 million extension prior to the 2013 season.
On the open market, Suh would be a safe bet to maintain his spot atop the totem pole. In his four NFL seasons, Suh has earned three All-Pro and Pro Bowl nods each. His stats this season (eight tackles, 1.0 sack heading into Sunday) are on pace to be down from 2013, but his presence along the Lions' defensive front might be an irreplaceable one, especially when combined with Nick Fairley.
It is Fairley who stands as a bit of a wild card in these proceedings, at least from the Lions' perspective. Detroit rather surprisingly declined the fifth-year option on Fairley's rookie contract, meaning he too could hit free agency come next spring. But, just as the front office hoped, the possibility of a lucrative contract has motivated Fairley early in 2014. He arguably has been more effective than Suh at pushing the pocket and disrupting offenses, despite having just six tackles and no sacks.
The Lions no doubt have been prepared for Suh's potential departure. Even so, they passed on the opportunity to nab defensive tackle Aaron Donald in Round 1 of this year's draft, instead opting for TE Eric Ebron. Donald has been a bright spot to date for the Rams.
Detroit did select Caraun Reid in Round 5, a player with impressive upside. However, he has seen little action through three games, stuck behind Suh, Fairley, C.J. Mosley and others.
More than three months remain in the regular season and Suh cannot void his contract until after the league year concludes, leaving plenty of time for this story to come full circle with Suh re-signing in Detroit. For now, though, he seems ready to pack his bags.