Katzenstein: Lions can't afford to lose Ndamukong Suh

Josh Katzenstein
The Detroit News

Ndamukong Suh continues to show this season why he’s worthy of a mega-millions contract.

It's a great time to be Ndamukong Suh.

First, there are the football reasons. The Lions are 6-2, their best start since 2011 when they last made the playoffs, and he's the best player on the NFL's No. 1-ranked defense.

Then, there are the financial reasons. Tampa Bay Buccaneers defensive tackle Gerald McCoy recently signed a seven-year, $98 million extension worth an average of $14 million annually. In September, Houston Texans defensive end J.J. Watt signed a six-year extension worth $100 million, an average annual value of $16.67 million.

Dave Dameshek and some of his NFL Network cohorts have applied the Jenga analogy to NFL teams since the end of last season. The premise essentially questions which non-quarterback would make an entire team crumble if pulled from the group.

For the Lions, wide receiver Calvin Johnson is the obvious answer as he's been the best receiver in the NFL since the dominating years of Randy Moss and Terrell Owens. But the recent 3-0 stretch without Johnson has proven the Lions can survive without him.

Instead, we've learned this year that Suh is the Lions' most important player. For that reason, I remain among the minority of people who think Suh will re-sign with the Lions after hitting free agency in 2015 because they simply cannot afford lose him. And Suh and his representation know this, which is why the Lions couldn't sign him with their top-secret highest bid before tabling negotiations in July.

Johnson's high-ankle sprain that held him out the past three games has proven a lot about this Lions team. Golden Tate's emergence as a capable No. 1 receiver in a pass-first offense is most evident, but the absence of Johnson has hurt the Lions' run game and created few deep chances for Matthew Stafford.

But as much as losing Johnson hindered the offense the past three games, the defense has kept the Lions in games during their charmed start.

Everything is setting up for Suh to be one of the highest-paid defensive players in NFL history this offseason, and based on the first half of the Lions season, his contract will likely be closer to Watt's than McCoy's.

It's difficult to imagine a defensive tackle making $16 million per season, but Suh continues to show why he's worthy of a historic contract. Not to mention his rookie contract paid him $12.9 million annually on average, which gave him an incredible amount of leverage even before he became a first-team All-Pro in 2010 and 2013.

Suh is in the midst of another All-Pro season, and he's been the key cog for a team allowing just 15.8 points and 290.4 yards per game, both best in the NFL.

According to Pro Football Focus, Suh leads all defensive tackles with 20 quarterback hurries. Watt has 24, and Mccoy has 15. Suh has 23 tackles, four for loss and 3.5 sacks this year. He also had another sack taken away after a penalty in the secondary last week against the Atlanta Falcons.

Linebacker DeAndre Levy and safety Glover Quin deserve plenty of credit, too, but Suh's ability to create opportunities for others in the run and pass games cannot be undervalued.

His play has given ends like Ezekiel Ansah, Jason Jones and George Johnson more chances to finish plays. The Lions have been without middle linebacker Stephen Tulloch since Week 3, and Tahir Whitehead's transition has been much easier with Suh and Nick Fairley filling gaps in the middle.

Fairley has played well this year, too, with 17 quarterback hurries, but the defense played exceptionally without him in the second half of the win over the Falcons because of Suh.

The Lions held Atlanta to 80 yards in the second half with rookie Caraun Reid and Darryl Tapp playing in Fairley's place. As long as Fairley is out, Suh will face more consistent double teams, but he'll probably continue to beat them like he did the last three years before Fairley became consistent.

Yes, the business opportunities are great for Suh in New York, Chicago and other cities, but he doesn't need to play in a top market to take advantage. He's already built one of the biggest personal brands in the NFL playing in Detroit. Flights to any big city from Detroit are easy to find, and he can seal deals on Skype or FaceTime from anywhere in the world.

Plus, the Jets and Giants have so many other problems — particularly at quarterback — that spending for a defensive tackle likely won't be the top priority.

Meanwhile, the Lions have done some solid bargain shopping with recent finds like George Johnson and safety James Ihedigbo, and if the 2014 draft class begins to show more promise, there won't be too many high-priced necessities in free agency next March.

There are reports the NFL's salary cap will increase to $145 million in 2015, which would give the Lions $12 million more in cushion a year after Suh is counting $22.4 million against the cap.

The Lions can't afford to let their most important player leave in free agency, and as long as the team keeps winning with defense, Suh will continue to have the Lions over a barrel.

Around the NFC North

* The Vikings were the only team playing this week with the Packers and Bears on bye, and Minnesota (4-5) improved with a 29-26 win over Washington. Running back Matt Asiata scored three second-half touchdowns, and the Vikings sacked Robert Griffin III five times.

* Chicago (3-5) goes to Green Bay (5-3) Sunday for a game that could have huge implications for the rest of the season. The Packers already beat the Bears in Week 4 and will go for the season sweep.

Around the NFL

* The Arizona Cardinals (7-1) have the best record in the NFL after beating the Brandon Weeden-led Dallas Cowboys, who dropped to 6-3 and didn't yet win the Super Bowl as ESPN would have you believe. The Cardinals are second in the NFL with a plus-10 turnover margin, and Andre Ellington (872 yards from scrimmage) is on the fast track to becoming one of the league's top backs.

* Peyton Manning is not only mortal, but he's not as good as Tom Brady, who led the New England Patriots (7-2) to a 41-23 blowout win over the Denver Broncos (6-2) Sunday night. Brady is now 11-5 against Manning despite having inferior offensive weapons than Manning's Broncos or Colts most seasons. Feel free to argue that Manning is the best quarterback of all time, but he's not even the best of this generation.

* Add Jeremy Hill to the list of running backs who continue to debunk the recent idea that the position is no longer important. A second-round pick this year, Hill exploded for 154 yards and two touchdowns Sunday with Giovani Bernard out, carrying the Cincinnati Bengals (5-2-1) to a win over the Jacksonville Jaguars (1-8). With what Hill has done this year and Bernard, Ellington, Eddie Lacy, Le'Veon Bell have done since the 2013 draft, there's a good chance teams won't sleep on running backs like Todd Gurley and Melvin Gordon in the 2015 draft.

jkatzenstein@detroitnews.com

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