Niyo: Still time, and hope, for Lions-Suh deal

John Niyo
The Detroit News

It's Ndamukong Suh's world, and the Lions are still living in it.

Maybe it's for just one more week, now that they're done threatening to play a game of tag and the real negotiations can begin. And if they're simply living on borrowed time, we'll all know soon enough.

Monday's news was not a shock, the Lions announcing they'd opted not to slap the franchise tag on Suh — a move that would've locked him up for at least one more year while locking him in at a cap-crunching salary of nearly $27 million for 2015.

But it did set the stage for something dramatic in the coming week, with free agency set to begin March 10 after a three-day negotiating window that opens Saturday.

The rent is officially due, so now it's time for the Lions to pay up. Or admit they misjudged and mismanaged this whole extended courtship of Suh, from the jerry-rigged rookie deal that got him into camp in 2010 to the early-career coddling that let his reputation get out of hand to the contract restructuring that allowed him to get the end of it with unprecedented leverage.

To suggest it's time for the Lions to move on not only ignores the investment they've made in Suh — a cornerstone player they've built their team around and the best defensive player they've had in a generation — it ignores the investment they always knew they'd have to make.

And regardless of who is to blame for letting it get this far, there's no arguing who'll deserve it if the Lions let a four-time All-Pro in the prime of his career get away.

It's on Tom Lewand, the team president, and Martin Mayhew, the general manager, and the Ford family that entrusted both to build a winner from the ground up more than six years ago.

No surprise so far

You can't ignore the impact of the old collective bargaining agreement on their annual cap manipulations. (Oakland and St. Louis have paid a similar price for being bad — really bad — before it was cool.) But you can't tell me they wouldn't have been better off using their first-round pick on Aaron Donald a year ago, or picking up the fifth-year option on Nick Fairley as insurance.

So, no, it's not on Suh, who never really hid his intentions, on or off the field. He views himself as both a difference maker and a different breed, and having proven that as a game-changing presence throughout his first five NFL seasons, he intends to prove it again with a record-setting contract in his first crack at free agency.

Again, this is not a surprise, even if it's a disappointment to a fan base that was just getting used to the idea of having a championship-caliber defense.

What would be a surprise — to me, at least, though I know that puts me in the minority — is if this is how it ends, with Suh walking away and the Lions left to try to walk back expectations after losing their best player for nothing.

Nothing to show

Monday's decision tells me they still think there's a deal to be made here, not to mention a reason to make it.

If they don't, or if they're just faking it, their fans have every reason to revolt. (Not that they need any more, of course.)

But once Suh switched agents last spring and the Lions finally tabled contract talks last summer — handing him a blank check might've been the safer bet, if not the smarter one — this was probably inevitable.

So now it's pretty simple. Either make him an offer he can't refuse — one that trumps J.J. Watt's $52 million in guarantees and makes Suh the highest-paid defensive player in history — or risk losing him to another franchise flush with cap room. Oakland and Jacksonville might not be the most attractive options, but Indianapolis or Miami could be.

And for a management team that has been touting its draft-and-development plan since taking over in 2009, how would that look? If you let Suh walk, and Fairley follows, you've not only cratered the strength of your team, you'd have nothing left to show from the picks you made in the 2010-11 drafts.

Forget the opportunity cost going forward here. That's just bad business.