Ash Thompson Breaks Down The Detroit Lions’ Salary Cap Situation.
One of our readers requested an article looking at the Lions 2018 salary cap situation. There has been a lot mentioned about the team’s position going forward, but not much analysis. At a glance, the Lions appear to be in pretty good shape going into 2018. As of this moment, they have $68,829,500 which is more salary cap space than any other NFL team. They also have the lowest average age under contract for next season at this point at 24.94 years of age. Both of those things appear on the surface to be good things, and that is as far as most people look.
That figure includes the salaries of players like Jace Billingsley, Michael Rector, and Steve Longa who may not be on the Lions 2017 week one roster, let alone still with the team in 2018. In all, there are 16 players who signed team friendly, multi-year contracts that I do not expect to actually be on the roster for 2018. That frees up an additional $8.88 million. If one of those players balls out and makes it to next year, they are a $550k cap hit. That is not a significant number to be concerned with.
I never did get the name of our beloved reader who asked the question, but thank you. For you, I will dig deeper into the Lions 2018 salary cap scenario. To get a more accurate picture of where the Lions actually are I am going to examine the Lions upcoming free agents, and what their cost will likely be to retain. The Lions 2018 salary cap situation starts with approximately $77.5 million in cap space.
Matthew Stafford is a free agent and the Lions have a pair of sixth round youngsters behind him. Stafford will cost the Lions $25-26m per season, but his actual cap hit for 2018 is a lot harder to pin down. The quarterback contracts in the NFL go in two varieties, the Andrew Luck, or the Derek Carr. Luck’s cap hit starts low and grows toward the end, and Carr’s dumps cap hits into the early years. There is merit to both techniques, one allows more flexibility in team building immediately, and the other frees up space later. Where a GM believes his team’s window for success lies determines where he distributes the cap hits.
Given the Lions salary cap situation, it would seem likely that they go the Carr route. Stafford’s cap hit could be as low as $20 million, or as high as $30, but for the purpose of this exercise, let’s assume it sits at $25.5. The primary reason for that is to make the Lions 2018 salary cap space remaining sit at an even $52m.
The Pass Rushers
Ziggy Ansah’s contract is impossible to predict accurately. If he returns to his 2015 form it will be astronomically high. He has said that he is talking to Ndamukong Suh for advice on how to handle his contract negotiation. That means he will likely test the market if he has a good season. He is going to be franchise tagged if he has a good year. The franchise tag in 2017 for defensive ends was $14.7m, and it will likely be close to $16m for 2018. If Ziggy doesn’t have a bounce back season in 2017 the Lions will need to address their pass rusher situation and those players do not come cheaply.
Kerry Hyder will be an “exclusive rights free agent” and will be back, but the team risks upsetting him if he has a good year and they continue to only give him small one year deals. He would likely sign a relatively low multi-year deal. Hyder will face another offseason under team control as an RFA in 2019. Armonty Bryant, this year’s likely candidate to be the rotational pass rusher that puts up big numbers and signs elsewhere next offseason, is an unrestricted free agent. Unless Anthony Zettel or Pat O’Connor step up in a big way the Lions are going to have to spend. I will just use Ziggy getting the franchise tag to estimate the Lions’ spending on pass rushers. That leaves the Lions 2018 salary cap with about $36m in real cap space so far.
Glover Quin, however, is the marquee free agent that the Lions most need to address on the defense after Ansah. The quarterback of the Lions secondary has expressed interest in signing an extension. One way or another the Lions will have to fill that role. Quin has the fifth highest cap number among Spotrac’s free safety listings. Quin will likely command $6-7 million per year if he has a good season. I will use the low end of that range because of Quin’s age, he will be 32 entering the 2018 season. The Lions 2018 salary cap will have $30m remaining after a Quin signing.
Tavon Wilson is also a free agent next year, but the team seems happy with Miles Killebrew’s development. Even if Killebrew is not ready, a replacement for Wilson’s level of player will not be difficult to come by. I believe that the team hopes Killebrew will become the starter. I will include a Wilson level player in the final account to err on the side of caution.
Other Defensive Issues To Address
The Lions addressed their cornerback position in the draft this year. The fact that Nevin Lawson and DJ Hayden are free agents next year is not all that concerning because of that. Of course, if Jalen Tabor’s 4.62 speed does turn out to be the impediment that I think it is, suddenly that’s a spot the Lions need to address. Tahir Whitehead and Paul Worrilow are both free agents next season. The Lions drafted their replacements in Jarrad Davis, and Jalen Reeves-Maybin earlier this offseason. The veteran linebackers are not likely to be retained in 2018.
The Lions also signed Akeem Spence this year, presumably to step into Haloti Ngata’s role next season. At one point Ngata was a much better player, but Spence should provide equal play at this point. They may need to address the interior pass rush next season if A’Shawn Robinson doesn’t step in to penetrating three technique role. I do not expect him to do so, it is simply not in his DNA as a player. That leaves the team with about $28m left of the Lions 2018 salary cap space before we look at the offense.
Other Offensive Issues To Address
Travis Swanson is the premier offensive free agent next offseason. It is possible that the team simply slides Graham Glasgow into the center spot, but then a guard must be found. Joe Dahl is, according to team reports, progressing well. However, he struggled in actual games last season. Greg Robinson may also contend for that starting guard role, but is an unrestricted free agent. Swanson is well regarded around the league and if he can stay healthy will likely end up in the top ten Center salaries on the open market. Swanson proved he was a starting calibre player but teams will likely be somewhat scared off by his 2016 concussion.
I think a reasonable approximation of the salary he garners would be $6m per season. That makes Swanson the tenth highest paid player at his position. He’s no Travis Frederick but he is better than players like Stefen Wisniewski, The relative play of the Lions offensive linemen will be a huge factor in the Lions 2018 salary cap picture. If Swanson were to play at a pro bowl level he would likely get a contract nearing $10m per season in 2018 outside Detroit.
Golden Tate and Marvin Jones are locked up for multiple seasons. Only Darren Fells is a free agent next season from the tight end group, whose replacement is clearly 2017 draft pick Michael Roberts. Ameer Abdullah and Theo Riddick are both under contract for next season as well. The Lions have drafted their third WR of the future. The offense can remain as effective as is it is now without spending much money. Other than, of course, the $30m to retain Stafford and Swanson. To maintain their current level of offensive firepower leaves the Lions with $22m
The 2018 Picture
The Lions will need to sign their rookies, which will likely cost them about $6.5m, depending on their record. They have six draft picks, having traded their 6th round pick to the Rams for Robinson. This assumes a similar outcome to the 2017 season as there was in 2016. If the team plays better, that number goes down but not much. If they play worse, it could be as high as $10m were they to pick first overall but I will assume they finish near last year’s result somewhere. That would leave the Lions with $15.5m remaining to actually improve the team if they stay with most of the current roster.
That may not sound like a whole lot. At the positions where the Lions are most likely to need free agent help, it can go a long way, however. Running backs, Safeties, and 4-3 linebackers are not highly paid players. Defensive tackles can make a lot of money at the top end, but I would not expect the Lions to target top end players. They have gone after specialists who fill roles for the most part, and $15.5 million gets a team several of those. If the Lions have a good season, and thus bring back most of the current roster, they can add significant supplementary pieces. They could also simply add a dominant piece or two at lower paid positions.
What if the team takes a step back? In any given NFL season it is possible that a team that has not drastically improved does so. Specifically, the Lions were a team that relied on the final minutes of games for the vast majority of their victories last year. It is not that crazy to think that they might not be as successful this season in doing that. They appear to have lost Anquan Boldin, who was absolutely vital in many of those games. In each of the last two seasons, the Lions have started slowly. They have righted the ship eventually but what if this is the year they don’t? The team was one or two plays in the fourth quarter of each game from finishing 2-14 last season. I do not see that kind of regression in the team’s future, but I’ve been wrong about that before.
There is a silver lining to that dark cloud. If a coaching change takes place there will be a lot of potential salary cap space to bring in players that fit the Lions’ new schemes. The Lions may choose to retain only Stafford. Doing so would give them $46 million or more to remake the team after they factored in draft pick signings. They would need to replace Ansah, Wilson, Quin, and Swanson before improving the roster. Wilson and Swanson may have in-house replacements. That would leave a pass rusher and free safety at the top of the Lions’ free agent priorities. They would have a ton of money to throw around though. The Lions 2018 salary cap situation is ideal for that kind of total tear down.
In either case, it is easy to see that the Lions are in a very good place going forward. The team has come a long way from the days where the fanbase watched players walk out for cap reasons. They can either retain their roster and build on it, or they can reshape it as Bob Quinn sees fit. The Lions 2018 salary cap situation is very good.
I would like to personally thank our reader for requesting this article, and I would actively encourage all of you to submit requests in the future. Without you guys there is no podcast, there is no website, and I have to go back to donning my armor and heading to mountain tops, screaming into the wind during torrential rain storms and hoping that the football gods will hear my pleas. Thanks for reading, from all of us at detroitlionspodcast.com.