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The NFL combine came and went with little resolution between the Lions and All-Pro defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh, a negotiation that has the league on pins and needles.

If Suh doesn't agree to terms by March 7, he can begin to negotiate with other teams. He officially becomes a free agent at 4 p.m. March 10.

"It would hurt any team to lose a player like that and the team that would end up getting a guy like that immediately becomes a lot better," Buccaneers coach Lovie Smith said during the combine. "Simple as that. He's one of the best players in the league."

Suh wants to become the NFL's highest-paid defensive player, either topping the $16.7 million annual value of J.J. Watt's contract with the Texans ($100 million over six years) or the $51.8 million guaranteed in his deal.

It appears nothing with the Lions will be done until March 2 at the earliest, the deadline for the franchise to use the franchise tag. Even though Suh would prefer the security of a long-term deal, receiving the tag at $26.9 million for one season would be a huge coup because that's about half the guaranteed money he'd make with a long-term deal.

The Lions can't afford to franchise tag Suh because it would make it nearly impossible to sign other key players during free agency, but they can't rule out the possibility if it's the only way to keep him in Detroit.

If the Lions tag Suh, they'll need to begin freeing cap space to fit under the salary cap. With next year's cap projected to be about $143 million, the Lions will need to free nearly $10 million, and the easiest way to do so is a restructure of Calvin Johnson's contract. As of last Friday afternoon, the Lions hadn't proposed a restructure to Johnson, who has a $20.6 million cap hit this season and $24 million in 2016.

Suh's agent, Jimmy Sexton, said there was "nothing to report" last week, but the Lions continue to say they are confident, including general manager Martin Mayhew saying president Tom Lewand has had "extensive" talks with Sexton.

What is clear is the Lions and Suh are playing the public relations game to garner favor with fans if he does leave. Mayhew and Lewand have explained the Lions have the essential elements Suh looks for in a team — a coach he respects in Jim Caldwell, teammates he likes and a team that can win.

Suh, meanwhile, has been as visible in Michigan during the offseason as he's ever been since the Lions drafted him in 2010. He has been seen at high school basketball games, Michigan basketball games and hanging out with Michigan football coach Jim Harbaugh, so there is evidence he likes Detroit even if he spurns the Lions.

Asked how he'd react if Suh left the division, Bears coach John Fox jokingly asked, "Where would he be going?"

But those who discussed Suh explained just how important he is.

"You just keep in mind what you have to do to deal with them — double teams and then just maybe running away from them, just having to plan every play for where this guy is," Smith said. "There are few players that you have to have a plan for where they are every snap. Suh is definitely one of those guys.

"We have one of those guys, and there's a reason why we paid Gerald McCoy the way we did because Gerald McCoy does everything the right way. He's the face of the franchise, he's a devoted father, husband, and as a head football coach, I could not have a guy to lean on more than a guy like Gerald because of everything he does."

Mayhew said Suh's on-field issues have been overblown as they relate to negotiations, but he and the Lions have been careful of praising Suh too much because he could use that against the team during negotiations.

Coach Jason Garrett saw just how much Suh can impact a game when the defensive tackle had back-to-back sacks of Tony Romo in the fourth quarter of Dallas' playoff victory over Detroit.

"He can be a dominant force inside, and he's one of those guys who really challenges you every time you snap the football on offense because he can be so disruptive — both defending the run and also affecting the quarterback and the passing game," Garrett said. "He has a relentless spirit, he's quick, he's fast, he's explosive and he's around the football a lot. He shows up."

The question is, when will Suh show up to negotiate or when will the Lions put an offer on the table that prevents him from hitting the open market?

jkatzenstein@detroitnews.com

twitter.com/jkatzenstein

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