Cap Analysis: Lions

Updated: March 4th 2016

Detroit Lions

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After starting the 2015 1-7, the Lions won six of their final eight games, finishing 7-9. The front office was purged of its leaders, including GM Martin Mayhew, who had been with the team since 2001. New GM Bob Quinn, who has spent his entire career with the Patriots, decided to retain Jim Caldwell. The Lions have some difficult decisions to make this off-season, but the team should be competitive in 2016 if they make the right moves.

Projected 2016 Team Salary$122.7M (not including escalators and not likely to be earned incentives)

Projected 2016 Cap Room: ~$33.4M (~$155.27M Estimate; ~$0.9M Rollover)

Situation: Complicated

The Lions had one of the top two selections in the draft for three of the final four years (2007-2010) of the old CBA – also known as the “Rookie Mega-Contract Era”. The team selected Calvin Johnson second in 2007, Matt Stafford first in 2009, and Ndamukong Suh second in 2010. The implications of those contracts, and subsequent extensions for Johnson and Stafford, are still felt today.

Last year, the Lions couldn’t afford to keep their best player, star defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh. This year, the Lions may again lose one of their best players – Calvin Johnson. Johnson has been reportedly contemplating an early retirement the last few months. But, the only direct quote that can be attributed to Johnson is “like many players at this stage of their career, I am currently evaluating options for my future. I would expect to have a decision regarding this matter in the not-too-distant future.” I think Johnson intends to play, but he isn’t sure if he wants to play for the Lions or another team. If a team acquired him in a trade, the charge for the acquiring team would only be $15.95M, which would be far more palatable than his current cost to the Lions (addressed below).

Notable Free Agents:

Lions FAs

The Lions have a number of free agent contributors, especially on defense. After losing Suh and Nick Fairley in free agency, the Lions traded for Haloti Ngata to help fill the void. Now Ngata, and rotational players Jason Jones (plays DE and inside) and Tyrunn Walker are all free agents.

Stephen Tulloch was released, and Tahir Whitehead and Travis Lewis are free agents.

Rashean Mathis (not listed) retired, and Josh Wilson, a former starter in Seattle and Washington, is a free agent. Plus safeties James Ihedigbo and Isa Abdul-Quddus are free agents.

Top Projected Cap Hits:

Lions Top Proj Cap Hits

Combined, Calvin Johnson and Matt Stafford will account for exactly 30% of the team’s available total salary. Johnson’s $24M cap charge ranks fifth among all active players, and is a whopping 51% higher than the next highest receiver (Julio Jones, $15.9M). Stafford’s $22.5M cap charge ranks eighth overall, sixth among quarterbacks, and second among quarterbacks without a super bowl ring (Matt Ryan, $23.75M).

Only three other teams have two players in the top 25 – the Falcons (Matt Ryan, 7; Julio Jones, 23), Kansas City (Justin Houston, 15; Alex Smith, 18), and the Cardinals (Carson Palmer, 17; Larry Fitzgerald, 25).

Cap Casualty Watch List:

Lions Cap Cas Watch List

The Lions can hardly entice Calvin Johnson to lower his cap charge – he’s already restructured his deal and is under contract through 2020. 2016 is Johnson’s highest cap charge, though he’ll still have a $21.4M hit next year. He’s got nearly $13 in various bonus pro-rations remaining on his deal, so retiring wouldn’t be the wisest financial move. Would the team consider releasing Johnson if he decides he wants to play? It’s not out of the realm of possibilities.

Extension Watch List: 

Lions Ext Watch List

Riley Reiff is entering the option year of his rookie contract.

Ezekiel Ansah will have his fifth year option exercised, pushing his expected free agency to 2018. He’s produced 30 sacks in three seasons, including 14.5 in 2015. Ansah’s only been playing football for a few years, and is sure to continue to improve. The team can begin negotiating with him on a long-term deal this off-season, even though they control his rights for two more years. Robert Quinn, who we talked about in our last piece, signed a 4-year extension (6-total years) shortly after posting a 19.5 sack season in his third season. Ansah’s numbers in his first three years weren’t quite to the level of Quinn, but Ansah has more money remaining on his current deal (selected 9 spots earlier), and the salary cap is almost 17% higher than it was two years ago. Ansah could receive a deal similar to Quinn’s – perhaps $84M over 6-years, with roughly half of it guaranteed.

Position Needs: 

Corner, Linebacker, Offensive Line, Wide Receiver (pending resolution of Calvin Johnson situation).

Sleeper Watch: 

If Calvin Johnson retires, those targets are going to go somewhere – they could go to one of the Lions many tight ends, or they could go to Theo Riddick.

Matt Papson (@RealitySportsMP) formerly worked in football administration for the Philadelphia Eagles. He is the President, co-founder and creator of Reality Sports Online, a fantasy front office platform that enables fantasy owners to build and manage their fantasy team like a professional sports general manager. The Reality Sports Online platform has been featured in Fortune, on Bloomberg TV, and was the 2012 Fantasy Sports Trade Association Rookie of the Year.

Sources: Spotrac, Pro-Football Reference, and Rotoworld

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