The Detroit Lions Could Be In A Salary Cap Crunch In 2019. There Are Many Ways To Fix The Problem.
The Detroit Lions are in a bit of a salary cap pinch next year. For two seasons general manager Bob Quinn has been giving free agents backloaded contracts. These are contracts where the salary cap hit in the first season or two is relatively low, but it escalates toward the end of the contract. The thought process behind doing this, and all teams do this, is threefold.
The first reason to do this is that the salary cap will go up every year. The NFL is a thriving business. Revenue grows absurdly consistently for the league. If the same sustained level of growth is only available in Ponzi schemes. The salary cap is, according to the current collective bargaining agreement between the NFLPA and NFL owners, 50% of league revenue.
When the current CBA began in 2011, the salary cap was $120 million. In 2018 it has grown to $177.2 million. Anyone telling you the league is in trouble does not understand the business the NFL is in. The NFL puts an athletic product on the field, but their business is to create advertising revenue for television networks. There are few businesses more successful at achieving their goal than the NFL.
The second reason to do this is that many free agents will never see the final years of their contracts. Injuries, coaching changes, drafted replacements, and poor performance result in players finding the unemployment line every year. Defensive tackle Akeem Spence, who was traded to the Miami Dolphins earlier in the offseason, is a perfect example of this. He signed a three year, $9 million dollar contract with the Lions. His salary cap in the first season was a mere $2.25 million. A change in defensive philosophy, the signing and drafting of players that better fit the new philosophy, and Spence’s climbing cap hit resulted in his move to Miami. Every team has a few contracts that they will never see the end of. This is a common practice.
The third reason is that it’s not difficult for a general manager to handle his future problems. The NFL salary cap can be tinkered with to suit a team’s needs. Often I see comments about how an influx of salary cap space could be used to re-sign a current roster player. Extensions do not cost the team cap space very often. Far more often extending a player is a mechanism for creating more salary cap space in the current season.
The salary cap hit for a player’s signing bonus spreads evenly over the length of the contract. Often a player will accept a very small salary in the first year of an extension because they just deposited a big bonus check. The result is a small salary cap hit in the first year, with a proportionally bigger salary cap hit in the later years. The team gets out of their current predicament but creates a new one later down the road. For Bob Quinn and the Detroit Lions, the first bump in that road comes in 2019.
Detroit Lions Salary Cap Space and Free Agents
As it stands right now according to Overthecap.com the Detroit Lions have $43,219,086 in salary cap space for the 2019 season. Their top two free agents needing to be re-signed or replaced are Golden Tate and Ezekiel Ansah. Other projected 2018 starters that are going to hit free agency are Sylvester Williams at defensive tackle, Luke Willson (and his backup Levine Toilolo) at tight end, Deshawn Shead (and his competitor Quandre Diggs) at nickel corner. Those players have a combined 2018 salary cap hit of $35.62525 million. That number does not include the players in parentheses or the team’s many other free agents. Replacement level players will likely cost more than those currently on the roster.
Tate and Ansah are the two most concerning potential losses. A replacement level player for Tate, unless it comes from an in-house option, would be very expensive. Tate has failed to reach the 1000 yard plateau only once in his four seasons with the Lions. His next contract will exceed his $9.4 million cap hit. It is possible that Kenny Golladay can replace Tate’s production, but that remains to be proven.
Ansah is the team’s far and away best pass rusher. His inconsistent production is a problem, but it is the only production the team is getting from the pass rush. Quinn did not draft or sign a replacement in 2018. The hole in the position group, if Ansah were to leave, would be immense. Tate and Ansah are themselves a $26 million dollar gap in the Lions 2019 roster.
What that means for the Detroit Lions in 2019
The vast majority of the Lions salary cap space would merely keep the group together. The team will obviously not field the same roster in 2019 as this season. Improving the team involves spending more not less, however. The Lions do not have a lot of salary cap space next season.
The reason for this is the team’s escalating contracts. T.J. Lang, for example, has a 2019 cap hit of 11.7 million. Rick Wagner’s cap hit is $11.9 million. Glover Quin, Nevin Lawson, Theo Riddick, Tavon Wilson, and Kenny Wiggins all have significant pay raises coming in 2019. Unfortunately for them, not all of those players will survive the 2019 off-season as Lions. In Wiggins case, I have doubts he will even make the final 2018 roster due to his contract.
The Lions have the option to create salary cap space in 2019, but they will be cutting good players to do it. Bob Quinn has set the 2019 offseason up to be a significant transition period. It will be interesting to see how the 2018 pre-season is affected by the 2019 salary cap.
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