Can the Detroit Lions Afford to Keep Johnson, Stafford, and Suh for the Long Haul?


A top heavy salary cap is the wave of the future. And for once the Detroit Lions are ahead of the curve. This is obviously (I hope) tongue-in-cheek, as the fact is the Detroit Lions have a lot of resources wrapped up in just three players; Calvin Johnson, Matthew Stafford, and Ndamukong Suh. They are the only team in the NFL to have three players account for over $50 million against the salary cap. But with huge deals on the horizon for Jimmy Graham, Russell Wilson, Dez Bryant, and others, they won’t be the only one for long.

With so many teams opting to sign a few big time players with no middle class, the first question to ask is whether or not those are positions and players you want to build your team around. Traditional teams are built around a quarterback and then players who impact the quarterback. That’s why every year you see quarterbacks, offensive tackles, pass rushers, wide receiver, and cornerbacks taken highly in the NFL draft. For the Detroit Lions it comes down to whether or not they want to continue to pay a quarterback, wide receiver, and defensive tackle.

Quarterback, Matthew Stafford

Quarterback is obvious. If you don’t have a quarterback in the NFL you’re toast. You can argue whether or not Matthew Stafford deserves the contract he received from the Lions last offseason, but he’s the Lions’ franchise quarterback going forward. There are two types of teams in the NFL. Teams who have quarterbacks and teams that don’t. I recognize not everyone is in Matthew Stafford’s camp, but if Lions didn’t have him, someone else would gladly pay him to play quarterback. Chris Wesseling of sums this point up perfectly.

The Lions had no choice but to pay Matthew Stafford and they actually got out of it with a decent deal. Per NFL Network’s Albert Breer, the average top quarterback deals and average per year (APY) through the first three years since January 2013 have been: Joe Flacco $20.10M, Tony Romo $18.00M, Aaron Rodgers $22.00M, Matthew Stafford $17.67M, Matt Ryan $20.75M, Jay Cutler $18.10M, and most recently Colin Kaepernick $14.7M. That’s a lot of money to pay for one player, but that’s the going rate.

Wide Receiver, Calvin Johnson

When you build a team you usually don’t think to build it around a wide receiver, but Calvin Johnson is in a class of his own. Only Megatron and Cardinals’ receiver Larry Fitzgerald have an APY of over $16M. The next closest is Percy Harvin at $12.8M. I have no qualms with paying a player like Calvin Johnson.

He’s the exact type of guy you want representing your organization and is the lone star coming out of the Matt Millen era. Johnson actually had all of the leverage prior to signing his extension, and he could have asked to be paid even more or simply test free agency. Every team in the NFL would jump at the chance to sign Calvin Johnson to that contract if he were on the open market.

Defensive Tackle, Ndamukong Suh

While it doesn’t seem like a position to build your team around, a quick look at recent draft history tells a different story. Nine defensive tackles have been taken in the top 15 picks over the last five years.

Teams are now looking to disrupt opposing quarterbacks by any means necessary. As a result, we’ve started to see defensive tackles added into the same class as defensive ends, outside linebackers as pass rushers.

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The Lions drafted Suh to disrupt the quarterback, much like a team would draft an edge rusher to do. According to Pro Football Focus, Suh had 72 total quarterback pressures (sacks, hit, hurries) in 2013. I’m a firm believer in what Josh Norris of Rotoworld often says, “disruption is production.” Suh was second in Pass Rush Productivity amongst defensive tackles, pressuring the quarterback on 10.2 percent of his rush attempts.

That figure puts him above players like Mario Williams and Terrell Suggs (3-4 OLBs) and just below guys like Demarcus Ware and Chris Long (4-3 DEs). Every one of the players mentioned have earned “franchise player” contracts, topped off by Mario Williams’ six year, $96 million deal in 2012. Suh will most likely be looking for something similar to Williams’ $16 million APY this offseason.

Can the Detroit Lions Make it Work?

In 2014 the Lions have 38% of their total cap wrapped up in those three players. The question going forward for the Lions is whether or not they can keep this structure and still field a competitive team.

A lot of this is going to depend on what happens with Ndamukong Suh. Suh is going to be a free agent in 2015 if a deal isn’t reached before the start of free agency. And because of all of the foolish restructuring the Lions did early on in Suh’s career, he also has a dead money charge of $9.7 million toward the cap regardless of where he signs. There is no way to keep him around without extending him this offseason. The Lions could conceivably put the franchise tag on him after next season, but they’d have to pay him over $26M for just the one year, a ridiculous number for any player outside of a quarterback.

Unlike the seven year megadeal the Lions signed Calvin Johnson to a few years ago, I believe Suh will be more likely to get a deal similar to the one Matthew Stafford got. I also think Suh will be looking cash in the “highest paid defensive player” card with his next contract. That should put his cap charge right around $16 million which is similar to the deals Mario Williams and Darrelle Revis got. The Lions also guaranteed 78 percent of Matthew Stafford’s contract to make up for the shorter contract. Look for a similar structure if Suh gets an extension this offseason.

The good news for the Lions is that the salary cap is expected to rise nearly $20 million over the next two years.

The Lions have clearly built their team with a “stars and scrubs” mentality. They are willing to pay their stars and play younger, cheaper guys in the meantime. If players like LaAdrian Waddle, Larry Warford, Darius Slay, and Ziggy Ansah can become impactful starters this method may work. If the majority of them flame out, the entire organization will most likely be overhauling within the next five years.