This offseason, the Detroit Lions are faced with the difficult task of trying to re-sign a pair of defensive studs (Cliff Avril and Stephen Tulloch) with no money.
Both are free agents, both will undoubtedly walk if the Lions can't reach an agreement, and neither should be the Lions' top re-signing priority this offseason. In fact, the Lions' top priority should be a guy who will play in Detroit in 2012 regardless of the events of free agency.
Calvin Johnson is slated for free agency in 2013, and he's slated to make a bank-breaking amount of money in the meantime. At this point, every day that goes by is another day the Lions let Johnson get closer to LeBron James-ing his way out of town in the spring of 2013.
If there's one thing we've learned from seeing modern free agency, it's that you don't let superstar players hit the open market. Some team, somewhere, will always outbid the home team, even if they end up overpaying the player in question (and it would be hard to overpay Johnson).
I don't doubt that Johnson wants to stay in Detroit, and I doubt even less that the Lions want to keep him, but I also think that the allure of a $100 million contract and a change of scenery would be difficult to turn down for any 27-year-old receiver.
That's why it falls to the Lions to not let him get to that point. Johnson is an elite player, the kind teams will spare no expense to get their hands on.
The only reason to let a free agent hit the open market is if they're overvaluing themselves. Once they see that the rest of the league is also unwilling to meet their contract demands, they can come crawling back and sign for a more reasonable amount.
That won't happen with Johnson. If Johnson hits the open market, he will have 32 teams interested in his services, and most will be willing to commit a massive sum of money to him. He will get whatever he wants on the open market, and the Lions will likely be either unable or unwilling to match his top offer.
To make matters worse, Johnson is just entering his prime, and he has a good bit of chemistry brewing with Matthew Stafford. While it may not seem possible, there's a good chance that Johnson has an even better season in 2012 than he did in 2011, and makes his contract situation that much more difficult. If we think he's difficult to re-sign now, wait until he has a record-setting contract year.
I shouldn't need to explain Johnson's effect on the Lions' offense, and I could just regurgitate his stats to shock and amaze. But the more striking illustration might be to talk about Stafford without Johnson.
Stafford had a season for the ages in 2011, notching 5,038 passing yards and 41 touchdowns. But take Johnson's production away from that, and you're left with a pedestrian 3,357 yards and 25 touchdowns.
And that's only the statistical difference. Johnson affects every play the Lions run on offense. It's irrelevant whether the ball actually goes to him; he changes the complexion of the defense just by being there.
But there's a more practical reason for locking Johnson up early. The man is set to make about $22 million in 2012. The Lions are facing an incredibly difficult salary cap situation, and it's entirely possible that re-signing Johnson means saving money in the short term.
If the Lions' front office can restructure Johnson's deal so that he only (only!) makes $15 million in 2012, they could theoretically free up enough space to re-sign Avril, Tulloch and all their draft picks, if they get clever about it.
Of course, even if they can't mess with Johnson's 2012 numbers, they at least need to keep themselves from being on the Cleveland side of a Calvin Johnson "decision" in 2013.