Mayhew: Lions better off without Suh contract

Josh Katzenstein
The Detroit News
Ndamukong Suh played for the Lions for five seasons.

Phoenix — After more than a year of expressing optimism publicly, the Lions lost All-Pro defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh, the centerpiece of their second-ranked defense in 2014, as he signed with the Miami Dolphins.

On Monday, general manager Martin Mayhew talked publicly for the first time about the process that led to Suh's departure and said the team could be better off long term without his monstrosity of a contract.

"I think any time you lose a quality player like that, especially in the short term, that is to your detriment," Mayhew told local reporters at the NFL annual meetings at the Arizona Biltmore resort. "I think in the long term we're going to be glad we don't have that contract on our books."

Mayhew explained that he had no regrets with how the negotiation process played out, but he did learn from the experience.

"They say hindsight is 20-20, right? I think it's 20-15," Mayhew said. "I think you see a lot clearer in hindsight, so there's about a thousand things I'd do differently. But you make decisions in real time with the information you have, and I feel good about every decision that we made every step along the way."

Suh agreed to a deal with the Dolphins on March 8, a day after the NFL allowed agents of unrestricted free agents to enter talks with other teams. Mayhew said Lions president Tom Lewand texted him Sunday to tell him Suh was heading to Miami.

"I couldn't say we misjudged anything about it," Mayhew said. "I think at every step throughout the process, I think we made a rational, thoughtful decision and moved forward. And then I think it got to a point where economically in terms of building a sustainable, quality football team, it didn't make sense. At that point, we decided that we weren't going to continue to offer more."

Because of the Lions salary cap situation, which is top heavy with the hefty deals for quarterback Matthew Stafford and wide receiver Calvin Johnson, Mayhew said the franchise tag was never an option for Suh. The tag would've cost $26.9 million in 2015 because the Lions restructured Suh's rookie contract twice, and the team would've needed to restructure Johnson's or Stafford's deal to fit Suh's tag under the cap.

"We want to get out of that situation at some point, so that didn't make a lot of sense," he said.

"I couldn't say we misjudged anything about it. I think at every step throughout the process, I think we made a rational, thoughtful decision and moved forward," Lions GM Martin Mayhew said about contract talks with Ndamukong Suh, who signed with the Dolphins.

The Dolphins acquired Suh with a six-year contract worth up to $114 million and with $60 million guaranteed. The Lions offered a six-year deal worth up to $102 million and $58 million guaranteed, but Mayhew declined to say exactly when the team made the offer. He said it happened in March and "right around the time" the free agency negotiation period began.

Of course, the Lions could've made Suh the same offer — which would've made him the highest-paid defensive player — at any time because he played for the team.

After losing Suh, the Lions were relatively quiet in free agency. They traded for defensive tackle Haloti Ngata from the Ravens and signed former Saints defensive tackle Tyrunn Walker to fill the holes left by Suh and Nick Fairley. Mayhew, though, said the timing of Suh's departure didn't prevent the team from pursuing free agents, but some of the players the Lions wanted signed elsewhere.

Dating back to last February, Mayhew and Lewand expressed optimism that they could re-sign Suh. Even though he's gone, Mayhew said Monday that confidence wasn't misplaced.

"We had a long talk (after the season) about whether he wanted to be here or not, and I believe that to be true that he wanted to be here," he said. "That part of the equation never changed, I don't think."

Mayhew also said he didn't regret tabling negotiations before training camp began to allow Suh and the team to focus on the season.

"I didn't have any regrets at all about that," he said. "I think we played great last year during the season and put ourselves in position to advance in the playoffs. You never know if that would've happened if that would've been a distraction or become a distraction. I didn't think it was worth that risk."

Now, the Lions face the risk of having their No. 2-ranked defense take a step back with Suh gone.

After Suh agreed to go to Miami, Mayhew said he exchanged text messages with him about something happening with Detroit's Police Athletic League, an organization for which Mayhew is on the board of directors. The conversation ended with gratitude from both sides.

"He thanked me for the opportunity to be here and play here, and said he appreciated his time in Detroit," Mayhew said. "And I thanked him for his contributions to our team."