If the Lions don't renegotiate the final year of Ndamukong Suh's deal, he would still count $19.4 million against the salary cap if they trade or release him. (Daniel Mears / Detroit News)
Allen Park – This has to be an uneasy time for Lions president Tom Lewand.
It’s not that his best defensive player, tackle Ndamukong Suh, is entering the final year of his rookie contract and is presently hording $22.4 million of the team’s allotted salary-cap space. He’s faced that predicament the last two years and handled it smoothly by extending the contracts of receiver Calvin Johnson before the 2012 season and quarterback Matthew Stafford before last season.
By doing those extensions, he made Johnson the highest-paid receiver in the game and Stafford one of the highest-paid, non-Super Bowl winning quarterbacks in the game, while carving out significant cap space for the team.
Lewand would certainly like to work out a similar win-win deal for Suh, and he has the resources and the backing of the Ford family to do so.
The problem is, who does he work the deal out with? Suh fired his former agent, Roosevelt Barnes and has reportedly signed on with Jay Z’s Roc Nation Sports. However, it remains unsettled, or at least publicly unknown, who exactly will be negotiating Suh’s next NFL contract.
Roc Nation has one contract negotiator certified by the NFL players’ association. That is a mostly inexperienced Kimberly Ann Miale, whose lone client to date is Jets quarterback Geno Smith.
Suh, along with being a three-time All-Pro, is an astute businessman. He has always cultivated his brand with the same ambitious and determined zeal as he has his game. It’s hard to imagine he would entrust such an important and lucrative negotiation to a relative rookie, especially after firing Barnes, who is from the veteran and respected Maximum Sports Management team.
Lewand and the Lions, meanwhile, are waiting to see how this unfolds. The wise play, it would seem, would be for Suh to do what another Jay Z client has done. Giants receiver Victor Cruz hired Roc Nation to market his brand while using Tom Condon of Creative Artists Agency to negotiate his football contract.
Condon worked out Stafford’s deal with the Lions, so there would be some familiarity there that could be beneficial to both sides.
Lions in limbo
Until Suh works that out, Lewand and whatever strategy he has devised – and knowing him, he has four or five contingencies in place – is on hold. No sweat for Suh; he has all the time and leverage an athlete could want.
But for Lewand, the clock is ticking – loudly. Free agency begins March 11 and even after clearing $11.5 million by releasing Nate Burleson and Louis Delmas, the Lions don’t have enough cap space right now to sign all the players they will draft this year.
Even though Lewand has said they can move forward without doing so, they will need to knock Suh’s cap hit down if they are going to rebuild the receiver position and upgrade the secondary, which will be paramount to having a winning season in 2014.
There has been a lot of media chatter about the Lions being forced to trade Suh. But trading him not only weakens the defense considerably, it doesn’t really alleviate the cap problem. Without renegotiating the final year of his deal, Suh would still count $19.4 million against the cap if they trade or release him.
If you are looking for worst-case scenarios, there it is.
Suh holds all the cards
What this is going to come to, ultimately, is whether Suh wants to continue playing in Detroit or does he fancy himself in a more glamorous market.
Two years ago, it was widely presumed within the organization that he would never sign a second contract with the Lions. He seemed to be, at that time, counting the days until his contract was up.
That all changed last season. As Suh transformed himself from an aloof and moody teammate to a respected leader, he said repeatedly that this was his team and he wanted to be here for the long haul. He wanted to be part of the group that brought a championship team to Detroit.
Well, sir, prove it.
You have been the highest-paid defensive tackle in the NFL since your first contract and the Lions no doubt will offer you a similarly lucrative deal – probably significantly richer than the five-year, $55 million deals signed by Geno Atkins and Gerald McCoy. They retained your position coaches – Jim Washburn and Kris Kocurek – and they retained the defensive scheme that you have thrived in.
And, even though this isn’t Hollywood or Wall Street, there have been no shortage of business and endorsement opportunities for you here the last four years. And if the team wins, the opportunities would be limitless.
Bottom line, Suh holds the cards. He could help jump start the Jim Caldwell era by working out the extension before the free agent deadline or he could put it behind the 8-ball by dragging his feet or forcing his way out.
He’s going to be the richest defensive tackle either way.