A Situation New to Lions Fans as the Quinn Era Heads into its Second Season!
Lions fans are used to poor salary cap management. They have been in salary cap hell for as long as most can remember, spending to the salary cap every year with mixed and usually poor results. The shadow of the old collective bargaining agreement, in which highly drafted rookies received the biggest contracts for their positions, has finally lifted.
Calvin Johnson’s cap hit was over $12 million in 2016 and was the final remnant of the Matt Millen Era. The Lions spent a decade giving big contracts to players that either didn’t deserve them, or had not played a down. The ghosts of GMs past are in the rear view, the team is finally moving forward.
They no longer have a large number of players in decline who are not living up to their contract values. In fact, the main position player over 30 that would net the Lions significant salary cap relief is Haloti Ngata. He would give the Lions $5.7 million more under the cap for 2017 if cut. There is no replacement for him on the roster however.
Defensive tackle was a poor group this season and subtracting from it might be a mistake. Matt Prater would save the team $3.7, and Glover Quin $5 million, but both have maintained a high level of performance. In one season, Bob Quinn has taken the Lions from a cap strapped aging team to a younger, more flexible roster.
This team’s primary avenue for opening up more cap space lies in extending a player it already has under contract. Matthew Stafford, Ezekiel Ansah, Glover Quin, Haloti Ngata, and Tahir Whitehead are all free agents in 2018. They also have high salary cap numbers in 2017.
The lowest cap hit of a contract comes in the first year. The player receives a signing bonus, which makes them amiable to a low salary for the first season, having received money up front. By extending a player, the team can drop their cap number in the current season, pushing cap space into later years. Taken to the extreme, as the Millen and Mayhew eras did, this strategy becomes a problem. In moderation however, it is standard practice in the NFL and one of the primary motivations for teams to extend a player before their contract ends.
Get to the Salary Cap Numbers
The Lions have $35,988,575 in salary cap space as of right now. They have 51 players under contract at the moment, and will be allowed to expand their roster to 90 for training camp. Only the highest paid 51 players count toward the salary cap however. For each new signing or draft pick, a player already under contract drops from the calculation. The rookie contracts are all but set in stone, each pick in the fourth through seventh round will be for less than a player already under contract, so they do not matter. Only the first three picks will remove cap space, as they make more than league minimum.
The number 21 pick will cost the team about $11 million over four years, and his deal will be back loaded. What that means is that about $1.5 million in additional cap space goes to the first round pick in 2017. The number 52 pick will use just under $500K extra in cap space in 2017. The number 85 pick will be right around $250K.
For easy math, I will say that the Lions actually have right around $33 million in usable cap space for re-signing their own players and adding free agents. The first eight free agents signed bump a player with a $460K cap hit off the list. The next ten bump someone with a $540K cap hit off the list. So a player signed for $2 million per season tomorrow only actually uses $1.64 million in additional salary cap space than the team was already using. when the roster goes to 53 men at the end of training camp, another million or so disappears.
What Do Starters Get Paid?
Each position has a number that a high end starting quality player is likely to cost. Quarterbacks get more than everyone else, $20 million or more. Next highest are pass rushers from either the edge or middle of the defense at $10-$15 million. After that left tackles, cornerbacks, and wide receivers can get into the 8-13 million dollar range for their best players who hit the free agent market. Other offensive or defensive linemen, elite pass catching tight ends, and running backs can reach the 6-10 million dollar range. Safeties, non pass rushing linebackers, and pass catching tight ends usually fit in the 3-5 million dollar range. There are exceptions but that is a reasonable picture of the free agent market for 2017. Other factors, such as injuries, reputation, and inexperience can drop a players price. Exceptional outlying individuals can exceed these numbers as well.
How Much Can the Lions Get with That?
Unfortunately the Lions are not to going to be able to outbid many teams in 2017. $34 million sounds like a great deal but the Lions are 15th in the league in available space. I would look for Bob Quinn to do much the same as he did last year: signing two or more middle to lower tier free agents at positions of need rather than stars. Other than Marvin Jones, who played a position the Lions were desperate to fill, Quinn was frugal in 2016. He focused on improving the Lions depth and that paid off. Despite a rash of injuries, the team made the playoffs.
If he spends big, I would expect it to be somewhere the team has no other option or where the signing makes the team better in multiple positions. If the team were to bring in a better middle linebacker than Tahir Whitehead and move Whitehead to the strong side spot, two positions are improved. A starting cornerback could move Nevin Lawson to the nickle, strengthening both roles. A starting left guard would allow Laken Tomlinson to be moved to the right side where he fits better. Alternatively, a right tackle becomes absolutely necessary if the team allows Riley Reiff to walk.
What the Future Holds
As of this moment the Lions have an estimated $108 million or thereabout in Salary Cap space for 2018 but their best safety, pass rusher, and quarterback will all be free agents. Any long term free agent signings would have their contract values increase significantly in year two as well. This year’s rookies will receive a slight bump too. The Lions are likely to end up with $40-$50 million in salary cap space in 2018.
I’ll be going over the Lions free agent options position by position as we near the start of free agency on March 9th. You’ll get my general opinions on the types of players they should go after at each spot and what they definitely should not. When you disagree with me, feel free to let me know on twitter and on reddit. I generally only bite when it is requested.