J.J. Watt is currently the NFL's highest-paid defensive player at $16.6 million per season. The Lions would have had to pay Ndamukong Suh $10 million more than that in 2015 had they opted to use the franchise tag on their standout defensive tackle.
Detroit GM Martin Mayhew left the door open for the possibility anyway, but the reality was the Lions could not commit that type of money to any one player -- no matter how important that player has been.
And there is no question that Suh has been an irreplaceable cog in Detroit's gradual resurgence of late. The Lions snapped an 11-season playoff drought one year after drafting him in 2010, and they had the league's second-ranked defense in 2014 en route to another playoff spot, with Suh serving as the centerpiece. A $26.9 million franchise tag still was not in the cards, which puts Suh on track to become a free agent March 10.
[daily_cut.nfl]The Lions still have the exclusive opportunity to re-sign him before then.
"We're still working on it, still very optimistic that we’ll be able to get it done," Mayhew said at the combine last month. He later added, on the franchise tag possibility: "Obviously, if you make that kind of financial commitment it kind of determines what else you can do during the off-season, so that’s going to be part of the equation. The value of having him versus, if we don’t get something done long-term, losing him and what we’re able to get accomplished in the off-season."
Suh will count for more than $9.7 million in dead money toward the Lions' 2015 salary cap regardless of where he plays next year.
The explanation for that cumbersome number is two-fold: first, Suh has restructured his deal on multiple occasions, so those bills have now come due; and second, Suh was taken No. 2 overall in 2010, one year before the current rookie-wage scale went into existence -- he started his career with a contract in excess of $60 million.
The Lions have been in a similar boat with QB Matthew Stafford (No. 1 overall in 2009) and Calvin Johnson (No. 2 overall in 2007). Together, Suh, Stafford and Johnson formed a three-headed face of the franchise. Stafford and Johnson, though, are on the books in 2015 for a combined cap hit of $38.3 million barring any additional restructures.
Had the Lions added in another $37 million for Suh (franchise tag plus dead money), they would have reserved more than half their '15 cap space for three players.
"As I said, with the players that make an impact, that are really important to you, you have to make a serious financial commitment to them," Mayhew said, "and we’re willing to make that commitment to Ndamukong."
They now have less than a week to do so before other teams can jump into the mix. The NFL's free-agent negotiation window opens on March 7, with players permitted to sign with new teams starting on March 10.
The Lions may still be willing to make Suh the NFL's highest-paid defender, but they will not be alone. Jacksonville, Oakland and Cleveland all have needs along the D-line and all sit at least $50 million below the 2015 cap line (expected to be $143 million). Also, as ESPN's John Clayton noted Sunday, teams also are required to reach a spending floor: 89 percent of the salary cap from 2013-16. Because of that, a typically frugal franchise may be willing to break the bank on Suh to clear the line.
That means there's no telling where the Suh drama is headed now. Detroit has formed its defense around Suh over the past five seasons, so count on the Lions to stay very much in the mix. Mayhew also faces a decision on another DT, Nick Fairley, whose fifth-year contract option the team declined to pick up prior to the 2014 season.
"I can see a scenario where we have Suh and Nick back," said Mayhew, "but I can also see a scenario where we have neither one of them."
One such scenario -- a franchise tag for Suh and a new contract for Fairley -- has gone by the wayside. However, even knowing how vital Suh is for Detroit's future, bypassing the tag was the correct play. A $26.9 million salary and nearly $37 million cap hit on one player would have been outrageous.