The Detroit Lions just can't catch a break.
After making the playoffs for the first time in 20 years in 2012, the Lions have slipped back into mediocrity the past two seasons.
Now, as the team tries to get back into the hunt in the NFC North under new head coach Jim Caldwell, the Lions stand at a crossroads with star defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh.
Unfortunately for the Lions, whichever path they choose may well haunt the team down the road.
With the Lions over the projected 2014 salary cap and Suh saddled with an untenable cap number of well over $20 million, one of the team's priorities this offseason is getting the four-year veteran signed to an extension.
At least that's what team president Tom Lewand told Dave Birkett of the Detroit Free Press at the press conference to announce Caldwell's hiring in January:
We have tremendous respect for Ndamukong, and I think we’ve expressed to him an interest in him in being here, and he’s expressed an interest in staying here. We’ll see where that takes us and what the timing of that is.
Granted, there are those who feel the Lions should cut bait and either trade Suh or just allow his contract to expire after the 2014 season, including Birkett's colleague Drew Sharp:
It’s not that Suh is a malcontent troublemaker as one national report suggested. It simply doesn’t make fiscal sense when there remain so many potholes on the defensive side of the ball.
Before we go any farther, a note about that report: There is a claim by NFL Network Analyst Heath Evans that sources told him Suh was "uncontrollable" in the locker room and constantly challenged the authority of head coach Jim Schwartz.
For the sake of this discussion, none of that is even the tiniest bit relevant. The degree to which Suh is Santa or Satan isn't really germane to this topic.
The reason? The same reason the Lions aren't about to deal him, but plenty of teams would inquire if they were.
Ndamukong Suh is one hell of a football player.
Since Suh entered the NFL in 2010, there hasn't been a more consistently disruptive interior lineman in the league. In each of the past two seasons, Suh has graded out as a top-five defensive tackle at Pro Football Focus (subscription required), and last year only Gerald McCoy of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers posted a higher grade at the position.
The fact is, Suh is an elite talent who the Lions have already invested a ton of money in and is just entering the prime of his career.
You don't let those players walk.
Unfortunately, that huge investment is part of what has the Lions stuck in a no-win situation.
Like teammate Matthew Stafford, Suh's rookie deal was a product of the old collective bargaining agreement, and it was a doozie.
The former second overall pick signed a five-year, $68 million contract when he entered the league, with $40 million of that guaranteed.
The deal has already been restructured, which leaves the Lions in their present predicament.
That mega-deal skewed Suh's baseline where his second contract was concerned. The five-year, $55 million extension for Cincinnati's Geno Atkins (who also entered the NFL in 2010) was a windfall for the Bengals' beefeater.
For Suh, it would represent a significant pay cut.
Until Suh hires an agent and negotiations get going in earnest it's unknown exactly what Suh is looking for. But, given his current salary and performance to date, there's little reason to think Suh will settle for anything less than being one of the NFL's highest-paid defensive players.
Suh may be worth it. The contract itself isn't the problem. It's the contract in the context of the Lions' salary-cap situation.
According to spotrac, of the $133.1 million the Lions have committed to 2014 salaries, $53.1 million is tied up in three players—Suh, Stafford and wide receiver Calvin Johnson.
That's 38.5 percent of the Lions' salary spent on 5.6 percent of the roster.
No wonder the team's over the cap.
Extending Suh's deal will grant some relief, as will jettisoning overpriced veterans such as Nate Burleson and Louis Delmas.
Even then, though, the Lions are one of the top-heaviest rosters in the NFL, and the players taking up all the room have combined for a grand total of zero playoff wins.
Is Ndamukong Suh worth a five-year, $75 million contract?
That's not a knock on those players, whose supporters will no doubt point out that football is a team sport. Only so much one player can do, talented though he may be.
Of course, the flip side of that coin is there's only so much that can be added around players who take up such an inordinate amount of cap space.
In any event, the deal will get done. The Lions would be shredded (both by the media and in regard to the return they'd receive) for trading a player of Suh's caliber, and Suh's cap number this year puts the team in a position where waiting isn't even really an option.
So the Lions will bite the bullet, sign on the dotted line with Suh and keep walking the salary-cap tightrope around their three stars, despite it having gotten them exactly nowhere to this point.