Breaking Down Detroit Lions' Salary Cap Scenario Heading into 2013

Chris MaddenAnalyst IINovember 7, 2012

Breaking Down Detroit Lions' Salary Cap Scenario Heading into 2013

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    In the last four years, Detroit Lions GM Martin Mayhew has done an impressive job building a winning team from the ashes of 2008. Turning them around was certainly a challenge, but keeping the new-and-improved Lions intact might be an even bigger one.

    As of November 1st, the Lions were only 2.5 million under the salary cap—which is $120.6 million. According to ESPN, that cap number won't change much next year. 

    That's bad news for Detroit is that they have over 20 players scheduled to become free agents—most of them from the defensive side of the ball—and each one of them will look for more lucrative deals.

    To make matters worse, the Lions already have Matthew Stafford, Calvin Johnson and Ndamukong Suh taking up nearly 50 million of cap space next season.

    Needless to say, with their current cap situation, and little-to-no increase, Mayhew and team president Tom Lewand will have their work cut out for them.

    They'll need to walk the fiscally-responsible tight rope while re-signing enough talent to keep the Lions competitive. 

    Here's a run down of the Lions' salary cap situation for 2013.

    * All salary/contract information courtesy of Spotrac.

Joique Bell Will Get Paid

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    Anticipation to see Joique Bell in action was high the minute he signed with the Lions last December. He was a local hero. He went to college down the street from Ford Field at Wayne State and actually worked security at Ford Field for a time.

    It was a great story, but as good as Bell was in college, no one expected him to have a big impact this season. He was supposed to be a depth guy in case Jahvid Best, Mikel Leshoure or Kevin Smith was lost to injury.

    Bell has surpassed everyone's expectations. He's getting tons of playing time and is making the most of it. According to ESPN, he's averaging 4.4 yards a carry and ranks fourth on the team in receptions and receiving yards.

    Bell's production makes his $540,000 base salary look like a pittance.

    With his free agency approaching the Lions will need to plan accordingly. He's made too much of an impact and other teams have certainly noticed. Plus, he's a Schwartz and Mayhew guy. They won't let him walk.

    He will be restricted, so even if another team makes an offer—which is becoming less likely every year according to ESPN—Detroit will have an opportunity to match. The question is how high would they be willing to go.

    Regardless of the price, don't be surprised if Bell's deal means Kevin Smith's time in Detroit is done.

The Beginning of a New Era on the O-Line?

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    In the next two years, the Lions' entire starting offensive line will be free agents. In 2014 it will be Jeff Backus, Stephen Peterman and Dominic Raiola.

    In 2013 Gosder Cherilus will hit the market, along with backups Dylan Gandy, Jason Fox and Corey Hilliard.

    The Lions will try and trim the fat—no disrespect intended—from this aging group by reducing payroll and adding youth. They have Riley Reiff and Bill Nagy waiting in the wings.

    The youth movement starts with Cherilus. His salary is only $2.3 million this season but his cap hit is $4.6 million. The Lions will have to pay him more to keep him around, but why should they? For less money they can have Reiff take over.

    Reiff makes an argument to start each and every Sunday with his play on the field in those run-blocking packages. No one will shed a tear if he gets the starting nod at the expense of Cherilus.

    Dylan Gandy (G) should also be moved. He's a little-used backup that would count $2 million or more against the cap next year. Nagy (G/C) is signed through 2015 and his salary next season is much less.

    As for Fox and Hilliard, the Lions can afford to keep both of them. They're still young and will only count $1.8 million combined against the cap. The Lions can afford that. 

The Defensive Front

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    Everyone knows the Lions' defense is predicated on the pass rush. So it's not surprising that they have so much invested in their front four. Two first-round picks and three highly-paid veterans make up the core.

    In 2013 the Lions will have to decide how much more to invest in two of those players: Cliff Avril and Corey Williams.

    It will be Round 2 for Avril and the Lions. Their contract negotiations drew a lot of attention last year, but they were never able to come to an agreement on the long-term deal Avril sought. He held out and the Lions franchised him for $10.6 million.

    The Lions are a better team with Avril on the field, yet they've obviously set a limit on how much they're willing to pay him. He won't ask for less money, and the Lions likely won't offer more. So another stalemate is very possible in 2013.

    If they opt to give him the franchise tag again they'll be on the hook to pay him 20 percent more than his current salary, which comes out to $12.7 million.

    Detroit needs to also think about Kyle Vanden Bosch. He's older than Avril and he'll be a free agent in 2014. If re-signing KVB isn't a priority—and it shouldn't be—then the Lions would have a better chance of getting Avril's deal done with the cap space created by his departure.

    Giving Avril the franchise tag, for the second year in a row, is the best way to get them to that point. They risk doing permanent damage to their relationship with him though. Another one-year deal is the last thing he wants.

    Williams' value to Detroit is not as high. He's a very good defensive lineman, and particularly tough against the run, but when the Lions drafted Ndamukong Suh and Nick Fairley in consecutive first rounds, Williams had to know his days were numbered.

    There's only so much money they can pour into the defensive line.

    He'll be entering his tenth year in 2013 and with cap space limited, the Lions shouldn't throw more money at him.

    There was speculation that Williams would be a cap casualty last offseason (per MLive) but the Lions figured out a way to keep him and re-sign all their key guys. Next year will be a different story. There are too many other priorities. Williams will want a new deal for more money and Detroit doesn't have the ability to pay. 

    They'll also need to consider Willie Young, Sammie Lee Hill and Lawrence Jackson. All are free agents in 2013 and all add valuable depth. The Lions should be able to retain them since their salaries represent very small cap hits and they won't require big paydays to stay.

Justin Durant and DeAndre Levy

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    Two thirds of the Lions' starting linebackers will be free agents in 2013—DeAndre Levy and Justin Durant.

    Levy was off to a great start before a hamstring injury forced him to miss the last two games. Durant is on pace to have the best season of his career and currently leads the Lions in tackles.

    Obviously Detroit would love to retain both of them. That might be hard to do as other teams will pay handsomely for their services.

    The development of Tahir Whitehead and Travis Lewis will also play into the Lions' decision. They both drew rave reviews during training camp and are signed through 2015. Neither of them have played much, other than on special teams, but their salaries are more manageable against the salary cap.

    The only question is whether either of them will be ready for starting duty next year.

    Ultimately the next eight weeks might determine who the Lions choose to keep. If Levy can get healthy and continue the high level of play he showed early on, the Lions should opt to keep him. They drafted him after all, and he's two years younger than Durant.

    However, there is a chance the Lions could keep both of them. They'd just need to...

Say Goodbye to Nate Burleson

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    "Thanks for the memories and keep in touch. We'll call you when the wide receivers coaching position opens up."

    That's what the Lions should say to Nate Burleson next summer. He won't be a free agent until 2014, but he's due $4.5 million in salary next year and the Lions have to be weary of paying that much.

    Especially to someone who'll enter his eleventh year in the NFL in 2013. He has lost his burst, adds no yards after the catch and is recovering from a broken leg.

    The thought of releasing Burleson might send fans into a tizzy. He's a great leader, a strong locker room presence and an all-around great guy. That's all true, but ultimately those are his best qualities and they're not worth $4.5 million.

    The fact that Ryan Broyles—in only two games—has been an upgrade over Burleson should be more than enough to convince the Lions that they don't need to keep him.

    The signs are already there. Within the past few weeks the Lions have signed Brian Robiskie and Mike Thomas, two veteran receivers. Both of them are signed through next year and together only represent $2.1 million against the cap.

    With Burleson's salary off the books the Lions can devote the cap space to retain another one of their free agents—such as Durant—who is more valuable. 

The Secondary

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    Other than three rookie cornerbacks and John Wendling, every defensive back on the Lions' roster will be a free agent in 2013.

    Despite the number of guys with expiring contracts, the Lions' main concern has to be Chris Houston

    He's the best corner they have and unless they're going to make a run at one of the NFL's top free-agent corners—these guys—they must re-sign him. Of course it will take more money to do so.

    The Lions also have to decide what to do with Drayton Florence, Alphonso Smith and Jacob Lacey. If they re-sign any of them, it's probably Lacey. The other two were emergency signings due to injuries. They have no future in Detroit beyond this year. 

    Then there's the conundrum at safety. I'll get to Louis Delmas later, for now let's focus on the other guys.

    Amari Spievey lost his starting job this season and is quickly approaching Jahvid Best territory in terms of susceptibility to concussions. He'll be a restricted free agent but no other team is going to offer anything significant for him. The Lions will likely retain him for close to the same money.

    That leaves Erik Coleman and Ricardo Silva. The Lions need to keep Silva in the fold. He's young, he's shown promise in spot duty and at this point his price is very manageable.

    As for Coleman, if the veteran gets a better offer he'll be gone.

Louis Delmas

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    Louis Delmas will be a free agent in 2013 and his future with the Lions will be a topic of much discussion this offseason. Based only on talent and on-the-field impact he should be the first player the Lions sign to a long-term deal.

    However, his true value can't be so easily defined. He's the heart and soul of the Lions defense and when he's on the field he makes everyone better. The problem is he can't stay on the field. For that reason an argument can be made that his value is minimal.

    Delmas already draws comparisons to the Indianapolis Colts' Pro Bowl safety Bob Sanders. He was an elite talent who could never stay healthy. He signed a 5-year $37.5 million contract, but only played in nine games the next three seasons due to injury (ESPN).

    The Colts ultimately chose to cut ties with Sanders and it turned out to be the right move. The Lions haven't quite reached that point with Delmas, but they shouldn't rush to sign him to a long-term deal either.

    The franchise tag is a good solution. Although that would prevent them from using it on someone else—Cliff Avril.

    According to nbcsports.com, in 2012 the franchise tender for safeties was only $6.2 million, which was actually down $2.6 million from the previous year. National Football Post projects only a slight increase in 2013.

    It's not a perfect solution, but it allows Delmas to get a substantial raise and the Lions to retain him without investing any long-term money. If he keeps himself healthy in 2013, then they can re-think their strategy the following year.

Matthew Stafford: Priority Number One

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    It goes without saying that keeping Matthew Stafford in the fold is the most important thing to the Lions. With all due respect to Calvin Johnson, Stafford is their best player. However his ability as a quarterback isn't the only reason the Lions want to sign him to an extension in 2013.

    According to Spotrac, Stafford is scheduled to inflict a $20 million cap hit on the Lions next season.

    Stafford's rookie deal was gigantic, and one example of why the NFL had to negotiate a new collective bargaining agreement. However, the huge cap hit coming next year is the Lions' own doing. They restructured his deal in years past to make re-signing other players possible.

    In other words they pushed money forward and 2013 is when the big bill comes due. That makes it nearly impossible to re-sign all their free agents. There's simply not enough money to go around.

    That makes signing Stafford to a new deal paramount.

    He'll likely command Drew Brees-type money, but the Lions can structure the deal so they're not stuck paying a king's ransom next year. This will give them the cap space needed to keep some of their key players, while giving Stafford the long-term security he deserves.

    They've already locked up Johnson. Now they'll lock up Stafford and improve their salary-cap situation at the same time.