Ndamukong Suh is posing, or posturing, and you hunt for clues in all the pictures. There he is at a Michigan basketball game, at high school basketball games, standing next to Jim Harbaugh in Schembechler Hall, men of ambition, smiling widely.
We know Harbaugh's ambition, to rebuild Michigan football. But the other guy in the photo? We're still not sure of Suh's ambition, beyond landing a gigantic contract. We can try to attach meaning to the happy images, to the fact Suh was in town during the bitter drudge of winter. He's not basking in the Caribbean with a cell phone smashed to his ear, so he must love it here!
If only it were that obvious. The truth is, Lions GM Martin Mayhew and team president Tom Lewand are facing the most-excruciating personnel conundrum in recent history, and as is often the case with this franchise, they can't win, even if they win.
Of course the Lions desperately need to retain Suh, and they've sounded so optimistic for nearly a year, they'd look silly now if they didn't keep him. But if they keep him by using the franchise tag, they'll damage their salary cap and destroy their roster flexibility. And they'd again be attempting to win with the costliest threesome in the NFL — Suh, Calvin Johnson, Matthew Stafford — which produced an 11-5 record last season but no playoff success.
I still contend if the Lions don't strike a long-term deal, they'll have little choice but to apply the tag by Monday's deadline and keep negotiating. It makes the most sense, even if it defies monetary sense. Suh is the centerpiece of a Lions defense that's finally legitimately fearsome, and it's preposterous to think he's easily replaced.
It's also an unprecedented way to run a team, and some around the NFL scoff at the idea. Pro Football Talk's Mike Florio said the Lions can't and won't use the franchise tag because Suh would take it, play another season for a staggering $26.9 million, then dare the Lions to attach it again, at escalating costs.
If they let Suh leave, they'd gain freed-up money but face a tougher task, searching for defensive linemen not as expensive and not as good. They'd be surrendering a huge asset for the mere hope of outmaneuvering other teams for lesser assets.
Tag no easy answer
Suh isn't as dominant as Houston's J.J. Watt, who signed a six-year, $100 million deal, but he is more daring, willing to risk injury to play out his contract and hit free agency. That gamble is the main reason he'll likely land the largest contract ever awarded a defensive player. He's also only 28, a three-time first-team All-Pro in five seasons, and incredibly durable.
Mayhew reiterated last week he was "very optimistic we'll be able to get it done," and most of the elements were in place for a deal. I assume he meant most of the elements except the one that matters — size of the contract.
That's what makes this situation so tricky. Suh doesn't drop many clues, in pictures or words. Those inside the Lions organization are operating only on the information available — Suh has told them he likes it here, he likes playing for Jim Caldwell, he likes his linemates, he likes Teryl Austin's defensive scheme. When Suh broke down in tears after the playoff loss in Dallas, it was viewed as sincere heartbreak.
I can't believe the Lions would be such ardent Suh suitors if they felt it was fruitless. That's why I think they'll get something done, but at what cost? If they use the tag but can't agree on a long-term contract, their roster would be in upheaval and they could be in the same spot with Suh next year.
"It's not a no-brainer or we would have used (the tag) the first day we could," Mayhew said, and he's partly right. It doesn't enhance a team's leverage to use the tag immediately, which is why the Cowboys are still debating what to do with Dez Bryant. Of the 12 players franchise-tagged the past two seasons, three subsequently agreed to long-term contracts.
The Lions haven't altered their public stance of optimism, and the fact is, they've been proficient lately at keeping the players they want. But there's no indication Suh and agent Jimmy Sexton have budged on their demands.
Suh is about business
So here the Lions sit, with one more weekend to figure it out, sure to be scrutinized whichever way they go. They put themselves in this precarious position because they tried to juggle so many big contracts, and this debate could go right down to the 4 p.m. Monday deadline. With the tag, the Lions would maintain exclusive negotiating rights. Without it, Suh would be available to anyone (including the Lions) when free agency opens March 10.
Mayhew said he could see a scenario where the Lions keep Suh and fellow free-agent lineman Nick Fairley, and a scenario where they keep neither. That's either a public-relations ploy to convince people the team is doing all it can, or an indication the Lions don't know what will happen.
I think it's the latter, that Mayhew gets a positive vibe but can't count on it until Suh applies signature to paper. Could the Lions get burned? Absolutely. I do believe Suh is comfortable playing here and isn't itching to get out, as some have claimed. But every indication is, money matters most. That's business, and Suh is about business.
He also should realize he has an abrasive style that generates mixed reactions, and there's no guarantee he'd fit elsewhere with a new staff. And this is what the Lions must realize: As painful as the salary cap hit is, it'd be much more painful watching Suh craft a potential Hall of Fame career somewhere else. That's the picture the Lions can't afford to see.