The Cost of Trading Ndamukong Suh

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According to Scott Bischoff the Detroit Lions are discussing the possibility of trading DT Ndamukong Suh in order to move up in the draft.

Suh has one of the most unique contract situations in the NFL. Between draft status and poor salary cap management by the Lions, Suh’s cap charge in 2014 is $22.4 million. Suh will be a free agent in 2015, but because he has a voidable year for 2015 in his contract, failing to re-sign Suh would result in a charge of $9.737 million against the salary cap in 2015. Due to the heavy proration in that 2015 year the cost to cut or trade Suh this season would leave the Lions with $19.5 million in dead cap.  The Lions can’t franchise Suh due to the cost so they can not even threaten to block him from free agency. Suh, who recently switched agents and wants a new contract, has all the leverage in the world to force the Lions to accept a player friendly contract.

Suh’s cap charge is nearly $7 million higher than the next highest defensive tackle, Gerald McCoy of the Buccaneers. McCoy was selected one spot behind Suh in the draft, but Tampa did not touch his contract to create the type of leverage that Suh has with the Lions.  Defensive tackle is not a premier pay position (the highest veteran contract belongs to the Bengals’ Geno Atkins at $10.665 million per year with just $15 million fully guaranteed) and teams should have been aware that by drafting the position highly they were already locking themselves in at a top of the market price for a player who never stepped foot in the NFL. Any reworking of the contract will just make the situation unbearable and the Lions did it twice with Suh.

Suh is likely looking at the teams salary cap situation and asking for a contract that would increase, perhaps substantially, from his current $12.9 million a year contract. The Lions have already gone well beyond the norms of a positional salary with wide receiver Calvin Johnson so Suh should believe they would do the same for him.  However, with so much money tied up already in Johnson and QB Matthew Stafford, it is arguable that the Lions can be competitive for the long haul at these salary levels. They may view the situation with Suh as one that cant be resolved and thus would be better for them to move forward with a much lower cost rookie player at an impact position on the roster.

While it is easy to get wrapped up in the $19.5 million dead cap charge that Suh would leave the Lions with, if we play the scenario out it Detroit would save significant cap dollars by trading Suh. If the Lions allow Suh to play out his contract and he becomes a free agent the Lions will spend a total of $32.15 million in cap dollars on Suh for just the 2014 season. That total is made up of the enormous cap figure in 2014 and the dead money in 2015. If they trade Suh the team would take on a $19.475 million hit this year and have Suh off the books in 2015. They save $12.675 million over a two year period.

If the deal would be something like Suh and the number 10 pick for the number 2 pick in the draft they would add in the ballpark of an additional $1.8 million in 2014 and $2.3 million in 2015 to their anticipated draft allotments in terms of cap spending. All told the team would create around $8 million in additional cap space over the two year period rather than having Suh and the 10th pick in the draft. In terms of cash they would avoid paying Suh his $12.55 million salary  while picking up around an extra $7 million in bonus commitments, a savings of around $5.5 million in cash. These are real gains for the Lions especially since the cost of an extension for Suh would now be gone.

The other possibility, if the Lions are floating this rumor, is that Detroit is using the rumor to let Suh know that they are not afraid of the salary cap charges associated with moving him off the team. If Suh did become a free agent in 2015 I have a hard time believing he would make that much more than Atkins on the open market. With Detroit he has leverage but elsewhere he will not. This might be Detroit’s best strategy to bring him to the negotiating table with realistic expectations.

If they are serious about trading Suh, there are few teams who could take on the cost. The team acquiring Suh would have to set aside $12.675 million in cap space for him. There are 14 teams that currently have the room to take him on. The teams with draft selections higher than the Lions that have the space are the Texans, Jaguars, Browns, Buccaneers, and Bills, with only the top three having premier draft selections. If a team could sign Suh to an extension that could extend the pool, but if Suh is set on a price he may not come down quick enough to allow that to happen quickly.

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Questions about this article? Reach Jason Fitzgerald on Twitter at @jason_otc