As free-agent bets go, Ndamukong Suh is about as safe as they come.
Ndamukong Suh has not reached a mutual understanding with the Lions. Why would this surprise us? Suh is not always so great at mutual understandings. But he is great at football. He is a relentless force at a position where it's so hard to be a relentless force. And as NFL teams wonder if Suh is worth the risk, or the headache, they should understand: He is not much of a risk, and really not a headache.
As free-agent bets go, Suh is about as safe as they come.
Suh has made some high-profile mistakes, to put it mildly. He famously stomped on the Packers’ Evan Dietrich-Smith, and almost as famously didn’t seem to understand the fuss about it. But that was more than three years ago, and his reputation no longer matches his reality.
Suh’s incidents have become rarer. Just as critically: He does not act out because he is an angry guy, mistrustful of authority or a malcontent. He can be overly aggressive sometimes because he loves football.
Rob Sims knows. He is a longtime NFL lineman, and like the Lions, he tried to reach a mutual understanding with Suh. They arrived in Detroit at the same time -- Suh as a defensive tackle, Sims as an offensive guard. That summer, Sims figured: hey, it’s training camp. You do your job, but don’t pretend it’s the Super Bowl.
Suh doesn’t think that way.
“A lot of people were shocked by it,” Sims told me once. “Let’s be honest: Sometimes when you’re out there, it’s like, ‘I’m gonna chill out on this play’ or whatever. He is full-go all the time.”
Suh was so full-go that he sometimes seemed too focused to say hi to his teammates in the hallway. From the beginning, he was not in the league to make friends. He wanted to be an all-time great. Some teammates found him aloof.
[daily_cut.nfl] But after a couple of years, he recognized his behavior and adapted. When the Lions formed a leadership council a couple years ago, Suh was the one who organized it.
Former teammate Nate Burleson once told me: “I always laugh when people see him as this monster. I’m thinking to myself, ‘I’ve played in this league 11 years. I know some monsters. I know some bad guys. [They’re] not hard to find.’ Suh is not a bad guy.”
Suh does not miss games (with injuries at least; he was suspended two games by the league in 2011 for the Dietrich-Smith incident). He did not even miss a practice until this past December. And if every player practiced as hard as he does, coaches would never need to yell.
Suh is 28 years old, and any NFL lineman is just a cut block away from injured reserve. That’s the risk, and at these dollars, it’s significant. But the player himself is not a risk. The player is a sure thing.
Suh is a complicated personality, and that’s one reason his impending free agency is so hard to predict. For example: It is commonly accepted that Suh wants to be the highest-paid defensive player in the NFL. Well, we all have hopes and dreams. I would like a salad that tastes like dark chocolate.
But what does this really mean? I think it’s fair to assume that almost every defensive player in the NFL would like to be the highest-paid defensive player in the league. This isn’t charity work.
The difference with Suh is that he is so good, he actually can become the highest-paid defensive player in the league. The only lineman who is clearly better is J.J. Watt (who happens to be better at his job than any other player in the league, by a wide margin). But Watt's six-year, $100M extension with the Texans last summer happened before he hit free agency, which limited his leverage. Suh can get more.
And yet ... well, this is where you have to understand: Suh is really smart, and he prides himself on business savvy. His friendship with Warren Buffett is not a front or a photo opportunity. Suh is driven to be great in business, not for ego or vanity but because that is how he is wired. This separates him from a lot of pro athletes seeking monster paydays.
Generally, the difference between $50 million and $80 million, or $150 million and $180 million, has no real effect on the life of an adult. Who cares how many seats are on your private jet? It’s about ego and recognition. These are highly competitive people who want to be recognized as the best in their field.
That is true of Suh, too, but he also thinks like a businessperson, and I’m sure he realizes that not all free-agent dollars are created equal. That’s why, when people look at the Raiders and think 'Wow, look at all that cap room, and Al Davis’s kid must love a guy like Suh,' they miss an incredibly crucial point: The Raiders will have to seriously outbid anybody else to get him.
Why? Taxes are higher in California. Suh would be in the state’s 13.3% income bracket. State taxes are deductible on your federal return, but $100 million from the Raiders would net Suh a lot less money than $100 million from, say the Jaguars, because Florida has no state income tax. The Raiders probably have to pay a 10% California surcharge, minimum, on any Suh contract if they want to sign him.
Texas also has no state income tax, and if the Cowboys can somehow restructure and tweak and be creative and save a bit here and there, as NFL teams do ... well, who knows? Jerry Jones loves stars. His team could use one on the defensive line. Suh knows playing for the Cowboys would offer marketing opportunities that would far surpass anything he would get in Jacksonville, Oakland, Detroit or Indianapolis, and he would get to play for a contender. Stranger things have happened.
The truth is, almost every team in the league should be looking hard at Ndamukong Suh. Don’t just look at the news stories, the columns, the video snippets and the snarky tweets. Watch him play every game like it’s the Super Bowl, and you’ll see: He can get you to the real one.