The Detroit Lions did tie up one loose end by signing second-round pick Kyle Van Noy to his initial contract:
Now Eric Ebron, the team's first-round pick, remains the only unsigned member of the rookie class.
Normally that would indicate some sort of stalled negotiation or holdout, but that is not the case here. In fact, it's almost a given what the contract details will look like. Ebron projects to earn about $12.5 million over four years, with about $2.2 million counting against the cap in 2014.
No, the problem here is the Lions do not currently have enough salary-cap room to fit Ebron onto the roster. Per Over the Cap, Detroit has just under $1.5 million in cap room available, and that figure does not include Van Noy's contract.
It's a lousy situation borne from the unexpectedly problematic issue of signing defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh to a contract extension. Those talks have been ongoing for months, but various issues—an agent change, coaching search, owner Bill Ford's death—have held up a consummated deal.
Obviously, the simple and most pragmatic solution here is to finally complete the extension with Suh. Barring that, however, there are still a few options for Detroit to create room for Ebron and perhaps even another veteran upgrade at a position of need.
Cut Some Fat
The first option is to cut a veteran reserve and replace them with a street free agent or undrafted rookie. Detroit doesn't have a lot of options here, but it only takes one. The potential cuts include:
- Linebacker Ashlee Palmer
- Offensive tackle Corey Hilliard
- Running back Montell Owens
- Defensive end Jason Jones
- Left guard Rob Sims
The most obvious candidate here is Palmer, who is presumably losing his starting job to Van Noy. The veteran carries a cap charge of $1.583 million, though, releasing him would free up just $1.25 million thanks to some guaranteed bonus cash.
Cutting Jones would provide just over $2 million in cap relief, but it would also make a far more significant dent into the defensive depth chart. His ability to play end or tackle is valuable, but the fact he's the only natural end on the roster with more than a year of experience is invaluable.
Cornerback Chris Houston would be a popular excision with the Detroit fan base, but it would actually be a detriment in terms of the salary cap. He costs less against the cap to Detroit if the Lions keep him ($4.8 million) than if they release him ($5.2 million).
The most likely neck under the axe is Owens, a hybrid running back/fullback who suffered two knee injuries in 2013, his first season in Detroit. His cap charge in 2014 is $1 million, and he's no higher than fourth on the depth chart at running back or third at fullback. Owens does offer lots of special teams value, but that is not enough to keep him from being expendable.
Trade an Asset
Rather than outright releasing a player and getting nothing but cap room in return, the Lions could also explore the trade market. For useful players like Sims, a decent starting guard, or Hilliard, a perfectly competent third tackle, Detroit could extract an asking price of a middle-round draft pick next year.
The key to dealing either offensive lineman is having a capable replacement ready to go. Third-round pick Travis Swanson could take over for Sims at left guard, but it's risky to trust Matthew Stafford's security to a rookie making a position change from center.
Likewise, dumping Hilliard and his $1.65 million cap figure means the Lions are entrusting the third tackle spot to either undrafted rookie Cornelius Lucas or converted tight end Michael Williams. That's a pretty significant leap of faith by the new Lions coaching staff, though, they could always add another veteran later this summer if it appears necessary.
General manager Martin Mayhew could also thin the giant herd in the secondary by dealing away one of the superfluous defensive backs who will not likely make the final 53-man roster. This is where moving Chris Houston makes the most sense, but he's damaged goods right now, and that makes trading him impossible.
The more likely candidates here are Jonte Green, Chris Greenwood, Isa Abdul-Quddus or Bill Bentley. While dealing any of these reserves only frees up between $452,000 (for Bentley) and $645,000 (Abdul-Quddus), a deal would free up immediate cap room while also providing some return for a player that can easily be replaced by guys already on the roster.
Even a conditional seventh-round pick is worth the temporary cap space created by dealing young players with potential but no obvious role in Detroit. Bentley holds the most value for Detroit, but he could also bring back the highest return, which is why he makes the list.
Running back Mikel Leshoure also qualifies here, though, if the Lions are planning on using a deep rotation in the backfield, he probably holds more value to Detroit there than as a de facto cap casualty.
Restructure a Veteran
This is what the team has tried to do with Suh, in the form of a contract extension. It's a fairly common move for NFL teams to go to higher-priced veterans and restructure their contracts to free up more cap room.
The issue is that it makes for a bigger cap hit down the road. Part of why the Lions are in such a cap pickle now is because of recent restructures to Stafford and Calvin Johnson. Those modified balloons inflated their 2014 cap figures, and it's time to pay the piper.
There aren't a lot of options here, but the Lions do have some choices:
|Veteran Restructure Candidates|
|Player||2014 Cap Figure||Total Contract||Years Left|
|Stephen Tulloch||$5.05 million||5 yr./$25.5 million||3|
|Glover Quin||$4.55 million||5 yr./$23.5 million||4|
|C.J. Mosley||$1.725||2 yr./$2.75 million||1|
The most appealing candidate here is Tulloch, the starting middle linebacker. Although he's 29, he should still have at least three more productive seasons in his body.
Converting $1.5 million of his 2014 salary to signing bonus, which would spread it out over the next three years, would secure some much-needed space now. Of course, that makes his cap hit higher in 2015 and '16, but the team is better equipped to swallow that in those years than it is right now.
Mosley is a good candidate for an extension. The third defensive tackle is a valuable role player, and the fact that starters Suh and Nick Fairley are both unsigned beyond 2014 elevates his stock. He's 30 but doesn't have a lot of mileage on his tires, and he doesn't play a full-time role.
Extending Mosley for a reasonable figure of two years and $3 million, or $225,000 more than his current deal, would allow the Lions to back-load more of his money and release at least $1 million in immediate cash to spend.
None of these options are ideal. Yet Suh's contractual recalcitrance might force the Lions to choose one in order to get Ebron signed. They have until the beginning of training camp next month to hammer out an agreement with Suh, or else. Hopefully it won't come to that.
All salary, contract and cap info is from Spotrac unless specified otherwise.