As it stands now, the Detroit Lions are in serious salary-cap trouble. Per OverTheCap, the Lions have over $131 million committed to 52 players currently on the 2014 roster, while the cap is projected to be around $126 million.
Some of the overage will be remedied with a contract extension to Ndamukong Suh. A potential contract restructure for Calvin Johnson would also free up quite a bit of immediate cash.
Another way to free up much-needed cap space is to cut overpaid veterans.
With a new coaching staff in place, these moves are easier to validate than normal. Jim Caldwell and his staff are not the guys who helped bring these players to Detroit; they don't have the attachment to their results on the field.
Here are five current Lions who could soon be ex-Lions in the name of salary-cap compliance.
This one is the most obvious of the potential cap casualties.
Veteran wide receiver Nate Burleson has even acknowledged the cold reality of the business of the NFL. Either he takes a significant pay cut, or else he's out.
As Josh Katzenstein of the Detroit News notes, Burleson sees the writing on the wall:
I’m not attached to a dollar sign. I’d rather take less money and help some other guys get paid and stay with the team that I like, stay in a city I like and finish off in a place where I get love and I give love back.
Even agreeing to take less money does not guarantee Burleson returns in 2014, but without doing so, there's no way he comes back.
Burleson's cap figure is $5.5 million in 2014, the final year of his contract. That's far too expensive for an aging player who did not play well after missing half the 2013 season with a broken arm.
Look for the Lions to cut Burleson, but perhaps try and bring him back at a much more cap-friendly figure. The team desperately needs that $5.5 million elsewhere.
The case for cutting safety Louis Delmas is fairly lengthy:
- He's played a full 16 games just once in his five NFL seasons.
- His knees are so gimpy he routinely misses practices.
- Inconsistent play is the only consistency to his game.
- Careless plays, like the one that knocked out teammate Bill Bentley, lead to too many penalties and mistakes.
But perhaps the biggest reason is his ungainly contract.
Delmas will make $6.5 million in 2014, and cutting him would save $5.5 million in salary-cap space.
Detroit recently re-signed veteran Don Carey, who has starting experience at both corner and safety. In addition, they acquired former Saints safety Isa Abdul-Quddus from waivers. He also has starting experience, including New Orleans' playoff win over Detroit following the 2011 season.
While neither is the dynamic player Delmas has proven he can be, Carey has shown he is more reliable and steady. In addition, this draft class features several NFL-ready safeties in the middle rounds who could take Delmas' place.
Another option with Delmas is to sign him to a longer extension to spread out the money, but his troublesome knees make that imprudent and unlikely.
Reserve offensive lineman Leroy Harris signed a two-year, $3 million deal last offseason.
For that investment, the Lions might never see a single snap on the field.
Harris was a Jim Schwartz favorite from their days together in Tennessee. With Schwartz gone, there is no compelling reason for Harris to stick around for almost $2 million in 2014.
While the Lions do have an opening at center with veteran Dominic Raiola a free agent, Harris has not shown enough to be considered the center of the future. At 30 years old next season, his best days are likely in the rear-view mirror.
The Lions cannot and will not pay a reserve interior lineman $1.85 million, not with the cap trouble they're in. While it's not a lot of money, this cut is the most painless. That money could go to bringing back Raiola at a bargain rate, or else it could help pay the salary of the draft pick that will be the starting center as a rookie.
Defensive end Jason Jones is certainly one the potential sacrificial lambs to the salary-cap deity.
Before injuring his knee in the Week 3 win over Washington, Jones was the starting left defensive end. He did not play particularly well, as Pro Football Focus (subscription required) graded Jones at minus-4.4 in just 87 snaps.
Jones was a free agent targeted because of his connection to Jim Schwartz. The Lions signed him from Seattle for three years and $9.5 million.
With Schwartz now gone, Jones might not fit into new defensive coordinator Teryl Austin's scheme. Because he showed so little in 2013, there's not a lot of incentive to keep him.
Cutting Jones would save $2 million in 2014 and over $3 million in 2015. That's money that could be used to bring back Willie Young, the man who took over for Jones and played pretty well in his stead.
Teams generally aren't in the business of cutting effective starters unless it saves a lot of cash and cap room. Cutting starting left guard Rob Sims only saves the Lions $2.575 million against the cap.
Still, that money might be needed elsewhere. The Detroit offensive line congealed quite nicely a year ago despite rotating three starters at right tackle and featuring new starters at both right guard and left tackle.
Also, it's the deepest position on the roster. Veteran Corey Hilliard—another potential cap casualty—costs almost $1 million less. Youngster Rodney Austin, currently signed to a futures contract, flashed promise last preseason and is a pet project of offensive line coach Jeremiah Washburn, who was wisely held over from Schwartz's staff.
Letting Sims go would be a tough decision. While he was the lowest-rated starter up front according to PFF, he graded out positively in pass protection and allowed just one sack. Guards who can do that don't exactly grow on trees.
Unfortunately, money doesn't grow on trees either. If the Lions want to go after a big-ticket free agent like center Alex Mack or safety Jairus Byrd, they'll need every last penny.