The Detroit Lions are in a tough spot when it comes to Ndamukong Suh‘s contract. Yes, they are somewhat victims of the old rookie salary system but the much of the damage in the form of Suh’s $22.4 million 2014 salary cap number is self-inflicted. A series of simple restructures and bonuses to free up cap space in recent years has shifted large sums of money to the back-end of Suh’s deal. Remember, base salary counts against the cap only in that year while money paid as a bonus is spread over the remaining years of the contract.
Now having reached the back end, the Lions are forced to deal with the mess they have created. A number of options have been discussed in the local media market of late, but there is really only one option when all is considered.
Option (that isn’t really and option) #1: Bite the bullet and let Ndamukong Suh walk
It sounds might sound well and good on the surface but fails to take the total picture into account. Set to count over $22 million against the Lions’ 2014 salary cap, relief isn’t as simple as getting through it and letting him leave via free agency so that the Lions can better allocate future cap commitments. Suh is under contract through 2015 but that last year becomes voidable five days after the next Super Bowl. “Dead money” due to previous option and restructure bonuses still need to be accounted for, meaning Suh could leave as a free agent following next season, yet still count $9.7375 million against the Lions ’15 cap.
Option (that isn’t really an option) #2: Trade Ndamukong Suh
This has been suggested by some in the past and came up again yesterday thanks to Drew Sharp of the Detroit Free Press. It made no sense then and it makes no sense today. Sure, the Lions may be able to pick up a nice draft pick or two but the cost would be far greater than just the services of Ndamukong Suh. Thanks to a large amount of “dead money” remaining, trading Suh would still cost the Lions over $19 million against the ’14 salary cap. That’s just counterproductive, even if it does get the Lions out from under the possibility of a nearly $10 million cap hit in 2015.
Option (that is really the only option) #3: Sign Ndamukong Suh to an extension
A defensive tackle with a $22.4 million cap number obviously warrants some action, but considering the lack of relief the Lions can get via trade or letting the contract play out, they are left with only one other option: reach an agreement on an extension. All that dead money means that if they are able to agree to a deal, the average cap hits will still be awfully high. There is just too much cap accounting left to be done that even spreading it over a deal of five or six years means an extra $3-4 million per year on top of whatever the terms of the new deal turn out to be.
It is a smaller version of the “kicking the can down the road” strategy that got them in trouble to begin with but their other choices result in a crippled 2014 salary cap situation and a big 2015 cap hit for a player no longer on the team.
To improve the overall situation, the Lions don’t need to get rid of Ndamukong Suh. They need to have more drafts like they did last year (Larry Warford‘s rookie deal never reaches a cap hit of $1 million) and do a better job managing their salary cap. All teams use simple restructures as a way to free up money but the Lions have been too liberal with that strategy in the past. Eventually those bills come due on the salary cap and it is a sad story we’ve seen play out over the last three years with Calvin Johnson, Matthew Stafford and now Ndamukong Suh.
[Update: It has been correctly pointed out to me on twitter that even if they Lions want to get an extension done, it takes a willing second party. Would Suh even be interested in staying in Detroit? Well, there isn't any reason to suspect he desperately wants out. In fact, before his buddy Joba Chamberlain signed with the Detroit Tigers, Suh spoke highly of playing in Detroit. That's not to mention the financial aspect. With a new deal comes a fat signing bonus and the Lions are Suh's only chance to get that in his pocket this year. Suh would surely be handsomely paid should he hit the open market after next season but he wouldn't hold the same amount of leverage he has over the Lions right now. ]