The Detroit Lions have $5,754,102 in Salary cap space right now according to over the cap. But what will that look like when the season starts? Currently, the top 51 contracts count against the salary cap but are all of those 51 players going to make the team in 2017? They will not. The reason for that is that players like Joe Dahl, Antwione Williams, Anthony Zettel, Jamaal Agnew, Jeremiah Ledbetter, and Brad Kaaya, who I think will make the team, currently do not count toward the Lions salary cap. For each of those, there is a corresponding player with a higher level contract that is going to be cut before week one.
To look at the Lions real 2017 salary cap situation, we need to establish a likely roster. Most of the debates about who will make the team are near the bottom of the roster and individual choices the team makes will usually swing the final number no more than $200k in one direction or the other. I will make note afterward of a few players whose presence on the 53 man would drastically alter the final number. I am assuming that the week one roster falls like this if no players are added:
- QB: Stafford, Kaaya, Ruddock
- RB: Abdullah, Riddick, Zenner, Asiata
- WR: Tate, Jones, Abbredaris, Golladay, Martin
- TE: Ebron, Fells, Roberts, Tonyan. I think an extra TE takes the FB roster spot
- OT: G. Robinson, Wagner, Koandjio, C. Robinson
- OG: Glasgow, Lang, Tomlinson, Dahl
- C: Swanson. I think Glasgow will be the primary center back up, and Dahl the emergency option with Koloamatangi ending up on the practice squad.
- DT: Robinson, Ngata, Spence, Hill, Ledbetter. Thornton is suspended and therefore will not be on the week 1 roster
- DE: Ansah, Washington, Hyder, Bryant, Zettel
- LB: Davis, Whitehead, Worrilow, Williams, Reeves-Maybin
- CB: Slay, Lawson, Hayden, Tabor, Agnew, Bademosi,
- S: Quin, Wilson, Carey, Killebrew
- P/K/LS: Martin/Prater/Mulbach
The Lions Dead Cap Situation
There are dead cap charges for DeAndre Levy, Brandon Pettigrew, Alex Carter’s rookie deal, and Gabe Wright totaling $4,836,286. Additional dead cap charges from the cutting of players in this depth chart will amount to $173,489. Those are the signing bonuses paid to Nick Bellore, Quandre Digs, Tony Hills, Dwayne Washington, Pat O’Connor, and Cole Wick. The total dead cap is $4,993,704.
Khyri Thornton’s Salary Cap Hit
Khyri Thornton is not on my opening week roster. Unless cut, the 10 weeks salary he will eventually earn still count toward the cap unless he becomes a free agent. That is a $437,500 cap charge. Thornton’s $200k roster bonus is likely the result of making the 53 man roster, which he will, but then become immediately suspended. He also has $225k in performance related bonuses deemed likely to be earned. Those will be deducted from next year’s cap charge if not earned. They still count in 2017 however. Thornton hits the salary cap for $912,500. If the team were to move on before the suspension takes hold, that would drop to $162,500.
I will assume they keep the $750k on the books during the suspension as injury insurance. There have been protests to this idea on Lions Twitter stating that the team would have to expose another DT in order to do this, but the team is free to expose a player from any position. It is far more likely that someone like Keshawn Martin, Matt Asiata, or Robert Tonyan will face exposure than a defensive tackle. If week seven rolls around and the team is healthy and performing well at the defensive tackle spot, the team can save that $750k by cutting Thornton.
Taylor Decker’s Salary Cap Situation
Normally players on injured reserve making more than the league minimum provide their teams with some cap relief in the form of a reduced salary while injured. First round rookie contracts though are guaranteed for injury. This means that there is no reduction. Decker’s full $2,492,495 remains on the salary cap despite his status on IR.
Three Possible Wildcards
Cornelius Lucas beating out Corey Robinson would cost the Lions $1,182,000 salary cap space. Because the players are of a very similar skill level, I expect the team to err on the side of frugality. Kouandjio makes only $75k more than Robinson. I consider it likely that the team goes in the direction of keeping both Robinson and Kouandjio for a smaller combined salary cap hit than Lucas’ $1,797,000 salary. I think both are better players now and also have more future upside.
Haloti Ngata has a very large cap number. Were his play level to drop to the point where he was clearly not one of the team’s top four defensive tackles the team would save $5.7m by letting him find work elsewhere. I think it is highly unlikely that the players the Lions have brought in will push the aging all-pro that far down the roster. It is something to consider though.
Tahir Whitehead is directly threatened by a potential Zach Orr signing. Of the Linebackers I have listed above, only Whitehead could save the team any significant salary cap space. If Whitehead is not a starter his salary can not be justified. The team would save $3,487,500 in cap space by moving on. Paul Worrilow might seem like a more likely cut, but his $2m salary is guaranteed in 2017. Worrilow will be a Lion. As will 2017 fourth round draft pick Jalen Reeves-Maybin. Unless the team plans to bring the SLB role back into prominence, Whitehead could be in trouble. Orr is as close to a 2014 Deandre Levy clone as the Lions could hope to find.
The Final Number
In the end, the Lions have about $163,175,503 that will count against the 2017 salary cap. The injury to Decker and the suspension of Thornton more than offset the fact that some veteran contracts will drop off the list in favor of cheaper rookies before the season begins. That is close to the number that most sites are estimating. I do not like close. That leaves the Lions $5,218,128 left under the cap, assuming they keep exactly the players I think they will. Most of the questionable selections I have made are at the bottom of a position group’s roster.
Swapping a player I left off the list for one I put on it doesn’t greatly affect the final number in most cases. Only if a highly paid Lion loses out to a player with a league minimum contract will the number really be that far off. Keeping a sixth receiver, or fourth running back over a third quarterback doesn’t change much.