April 25, 2014 at 1:00 am

Chris McCosky

Lions should keep Ndamukong Suh if they want to win now

Lions defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh skipped a voluntary minicamp this week. (Detroit News)

Allen Park ó The first thought was, who the heck advised Ndamukong Suh to skip the voluntary minicamp this week? But then we know the answer to that: Suh doesnít take advice.

Lions media relations boss Bill Keenist once tried to advise him. It was after the Thanksgiving Day stomp. Keenist wrote out a statement for Suh to read after the game. Suh crumpled it up and proceeded to tell people he lost his balance.

The damage that inane explanation (re: lie) caused his beloved brand was incalculable. And this seemingly selfish and arrogant decision to skip the minicamp is doing more than hurting his brand. Itís validating a very negative perception among not only fans, but NFL executives, who already believe Suh is not a player you can win with.

The easiest, most rational thing Suh could have done was to show up for three days. Even if he didnít practice, his presence would have calmed these now-stormy waters.

Full disclosure: In terms of the team and coach Jim Caldwellís mission to build a winning culture here, I donít think Suh missing two weeks of voluntary conditioning and three days of non-padded practices is a big deal. I donít think the players care that much. It certainly didnít distract them this week, and it wonít set the team back or damage team chemistry.

Suh has always swum outside the pack, even last year when he was a bit more engaged with his teammates. Suh is Suh. Iíve heard players say that a million times. His skipping voluntary minicamp is aggravating, for sure. But if he comes back in shape and ready to play, which he has every year, all will be forgiven.

Championships are not won and lost during voluntary practices in April, even for teams with new coaching staffs. Listen, the 49ers hired a new general manager (Trent Baalke) and a new coaching staff (Jim Harbaugh) before the lockout in 2011 and couldnít even hand out their playbooks until July. And they went 13-3 and made it to the NFC title game that year.

Weíre talking about one veteran, accomplished player, returning to the same 4-3 defensive structure and to the same defensive line coaches heís played under for four years. Suh will hardly be starting from scratch.

Still the one

Obviously, there is a bigger concern here. Namely, what should the Lions do about Suh going forward? He is in the last year of his rookie deal. Negotiations are ongoing on an extension that will undoubtedly make him the richest defensive tackle in the game. Is he worthy of a long-term commitment? In the long run, will his on-field brilliance trump his off-field annoyances?

I will tell you this: The Lions have up to this point never wavered in their desire to keep Suh as one of their foundation pieces. They identified three ó Matthew Stafford, Calvin Johnson and Suh. I donít know for sure, but it would be shocking if they were suddenly trying to lowball him in negotiations now.

It wouldnít surprise me if Suh wants to test the free agent market. He wants to be the richest man on earth, so why wouldnít he see how much his talent is worth as he enters the prime years of his career? I think part of him, too, is wary of the coaching change. I think he wants to see how this all will work out before he commits long-term.

Naturally, that puts the Lions in a bind. Do they ride out this last year with him and risk losing him to free agency for nothing, or do they trade him now and get what they can for him?

According to a report by Bleacher Reportís Mike Freeman, the Lions have sent out some feelers around the league to gauge whether teams would be willing to trade for Suh and his $22.4 million cap hit and what they might be able to get in return.

Now, as Freeman smartly emphasized, that doesnít mean the Lions are going to or even want to trade Suh. They are just doing their due diligence. You have to be prepared to deal with worst-case scenarios in this business.

To me, the smarter play is to keep him. The mission is to win now. How many times have you heard president Tom Lewand or general manager Martin Mayhew or Caldwell say that already this year? They arenít just talking about winning games, they are talking about winning championships. Now. Not later.

So, how does trading away a perennial All-Pro defensive tackle in the prime of his career, who would be highly motivated in a contract year, support the mission? It runs counter to the mission.

Let it play out

Suh doesnít hate it here. Suh, in fact, has grown to like it here. The negotiations, as far as weíve been told, arenít acrimonious or at an impasse. They have been described as cordial and productive. As we speak, there is nothing that would make the Lions think they will not be able to reach a deal with Suh at some point ó which includes, presumably, after the 2014 season.

There is no need to make a panic move now. The Lions could, if it came down to it, slap the franchise tag on Suh for 2015. It would cost the Lions a little less than $27 million to do that; less than $5 million more in cap space than he occupies now.

Itís crazy expensive, no doubt. But itís something that can be used by the Lions as leverage to at least keep negotiations going if this goes through the season.

My point is, let it play out. Letís see the damage this defensive line can do with both Suh and Nick Fairley supremely motivated. Letís not overreact to things that wonít matter all that much in the long run ó like Suh skipping voluntary practices.

It is highly unlikely the Lions could get fair value in a trade for Suh, certainly not anything that would help them win in 2014. And last I checked, no prizes were ever awarded to teams with the most future draft picks and cap space.

In a perfect world, every star player would have the class and professionalism of Calvin Johnson. Every foundation player would be as passionately invested in the teamís mission as Dominic Raiola and Matthew Stafford. Sadly, it doesnít work that way.

But you need more than good people and intangibles to be successful. You need great players. For all his warts, Suh is a great player. And he has proven the last four years that from August until whenever the season ends, he is all in.

I would roll with that for the 2014 season. Give me the best chance to win today and I will worry about tomorrow later. These types of dilemmas tend to work themselves out when you win.


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