The Lions’ Options For Ndamukong Suh

In the first installment of our 2015 free agent power rankings, we placed¬†Ndamukong Suh second behind Chiefs pass rusher Justin Houston, and you can certainly make a case that the Lions defensive tackle deserves that top spot over Houston. The cornerstone of an elite Detroit defense that has propelled the team into the postseason, Suh ranks as the league’s third-best defensive tackle, according to Pro Football Focus’ grades (subscription required). Only one other defensive tackle has logged more snaps than Suh’s 768, and very few defenders have had the same sort of impact Suh has had against both the pass and the run.Ndamukong Suh

With a player of Suh’s caliber, a team’s decision is usually simple — the front office will do everything it can to lock up its prospective free agent to a long-term deal. If an agreement can’t be reached, the franchise tag can keep the player from reaching the open market, and also gives the club some extra time to negotiate a multiyear pact. Depending on the kind of franchise tag the team uses, exclusive negotiating rights can be retained throughout that process as well.

Suh’s is perhaps the most unique case among this year’s group of top free-agents-to-be though, and the Lions’ approach to keeping him isn’t quite that simple. Let’s break down the team’s three options for dealing with Suh as his contract nears its end….

Working out a long-term extension:

Among defensive tackles, Gerald McCoy‘s seven-year, $95.2MM contract, which works out to an annual average of $13.6MM, is the gold standard. However, even that per-year figure may not be enough to appease Suh. A pair of defensive ends, J.J. Watt and Mario Williams, have cracked $16MM annually on their most recent deals, and I’d expect Suh and agent Jimmy Sexton to target a figure approaching – or even exceeding – that benchmark.

Having mentioned Sexton, it’s worth pointing out that Suh’s most recent public comments about his contract situation certainly didn’t undersell the agent’s role in the process. According to Suh, Sexton will not only handle the negotiations, but he’ll also decide the defensive tackle’s next team. In other words, Suh appears interested in playing for the club willing to offer him the most money. That’s not a surprising stance, and not one for which he should be vilified, but it’s certainly not what we expect to hear, considering most prospective free agents at least pay lip service to the idea of wanting to stick with their current teams.

In any case, the fact that Suh and Sexton will likely accept the bigger and best offer they get doesn’t rule out the Lions by any means. The team currently has $123MM on its cap for 2015, but the cap limit is expected to rise to the $140MM neighborhood, and there are ways for the club to create enough additional flexibility to comfortably accommodate a lucrative long-term deal for Suh.

The Lions’ problem is this: If Suh and Sexton want to see what kind of big offers are out there, it will mean hitting the open market without an agreement in place with the Lions. Even if they’re confident they could match any rival offer Suh receives, the Lions may not want to let it reach that point, for fear of another suitor making the star defensive tackle an offer he couldn’t refuse, perhaps by frontloading it or including a ton of bonus money. As such, if no extension agreement is in place by March, the Lions may want to use the franchise tag to retain exclusive negotiating rights.

Using the franchise tag:

For many elite free agents, the franchise tag makes the most sense — the franchise dollar figure typically falls in line with other top salaries around the league, and such an investment, particularly for just one year, is worthwhile if you’re trying to keep a star player. I anticipate we’ll see teams like the Broncos and Cowboys use it this year, if they have to, for standouts like Demaryius Thomas and Dez Bryant.

However, unlike Thomas and Bryant, Suh is already on the books for a 2014 massive cap hit that actually exceeds what the franchise figure would be for virtually any other player in the league. In Suh’s case, his franchise figure will be 120% of his current cap hit, which works out to a staggering $26.895MM for 2015.

As I noted above, the Lions don’t currently have the space to accommodate a cap number of $26.895MM, but by cutting a few players, and perhaps restructuring contracts for a few others, it’s conceivable that the team could make it work. Still, Suh will already count for over $9.7MM in dead money on the 2015 cap, due to the way his current contract is structured. Keeping him by using the franchise tag would mean the Lions would be committing over $35MM of their cap room to a single player, which is essentially unprecedented.

As such, it may not be feasible for the Lions to carry Suh all season at that $26.895MM cap figure, but the team will likely strongly consider using the tag anyway, since it would at least allow the club to hang onto its exclusive negotiating window for another year. The franchise figure could be used a placeholder, and then if the two sides were to reach a long-term agreement later in the year, that cap hit for 2015 could be significantly reduced.

Allowing him to leave:

Of course, while we rarely see big-name players in their primes hit the open market and change teams, it’s not out of the question that the Lions allow Suh to walk. The 27-year-old’s comments about his contract don’t make it sound as if he’s overly eager to remain in Detroit, and while I don’t think that necessarily means he wants to leave, you’d prefer to hear a little more enthusiasm from your star player about the team and its future.

Additionally, letting Suh go would free up a ton of cap space to use on several other players. By way of comparison, the Lions’ top four free agent signings from last offseason – Golden Tate, Brandon Pettigrew, Joique Bell, and James Ihedigbo – are counting for less than $9MM against the 2014 cap — or about a third of Suh’s potential $26.9MM franchise salary.

Still, as a handful of Lions beat writers have pointed out, Suh’s impact on the defensive unit is hard to understate, and it’s not like this year’s free agent list is overflowing with viable alternatives. Letting Suh leave would mean Detroit would be under more pressure to retain its other free agent defensive tackles, such as Nick Fairley, and would probably have to select a player at the position early in the draft. There’d certainly be more money available to bolster the roster in other spots, but it would come at the expense of a unit (the defensive line) that has played a huge role in the club’s success this season.

Ultimately, there are no easy decisions for the Lions when it comes to Suh, who has much more leverage than your typical free-agent-to-be. I’d be surprised if the team let him go, but it may take some extensive cap maneuvering in Detroit to make things work.

Photo courtesy of USA Today Sports Images.

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