Suh has all the leverage in pursuit of 'elite money'

Josh Katzenstein
The Detroit News
Former agent Joel Corry on the deal Ndamukong Suh could get: “It could become elite quarterback money if he got three teams that are serious bidders.”

By this time next week, Ndamukong Suh likely will have received the most lucrative contract of any defensive player in NFL history.

Whether that deal will be with the Lions remains to be seen, but it's become increasingly clear that Suh and his agents — first Roosevelt Barnes and now Jimmy Sexton — have put him in position to maximize his earnings by creating more and more leverage since he signed his rookie contract.

Several factors could play a role in Suh's decision of where he signs. With a contract of more than $100 million, playing in a state with no income tax could be appealing. With zero playoff wins in his first five seasons, Suh could pursue a team that would give him the best chance to win and improve his chances of making the Hall of Fame one day. The Lions, of course, think they are contenders with Suh after going 11-5 in 2014.

Wherever Suh plays, though, it's a near certainty he'll surpass Texans defensive end J.J. Watt's contract numbers of $51.8 million guaranteed in his six-year, $100 million contract.

"It could become elite quarterback money if he got three teams that are serious bidders," said Joel Corry, a former agent who now works for CBS. "Because if he's got three teams that want him that badly, Jimmy Sexton — if he wants to — can leverage this thing into an outrageous number."

If Suh spurns the Lions, the front office will come under heavy fire for allowing him to walk after helping him create this mountain of leverage. Agreeing to restructure his contract in 2012 and 2013 caused Suh's franchise tag number to be $26.9 million this year instead of about $19 million.

"Both sides were aware through this process that this is something that could happen, and obviously from the Lions they wanted the cap room and Suh didn't lose any money on it," said Charlie Casserly, a former general manager for Washington and Houston who now works for NFL Network. "And from the player's point of view, it can be a win-win because you've forced a cap number to a point they can't do it, and you become a free agent so you can then make your decision on where you want to play. And if you stay in Detroit, you can do it, too."

Lions created leverage

Those restructures, Corry said, were unavoidable for the Lions. With Calvin Johnson and Matthew Stafford both playing on mega deals, the Lions needed to use Suh to create space to sign free agents.

Plus, escalating cap numbers due to restructures aren't uncommon. The Colts used the franchise tag on Peyton Manning in 2011 for more than $23 million before working out a long-term deal that July. In 2009, the Panthers used the franchise tag on defensive end Julius Peppers for $16.7 million, but opted not to use the tag in 2010 for $21.4 million. Peppers signed with the Bears in free agency.

The Lions could have signed Ndamukong Suh in the 2014 offseason when the market was lower.

But the Lions missed other opportunities to limit Suh's leverage, though. By declining Nick Fairley's low-risk $5.5 million option for 2014, the Lions lost a safety valve at defensive tackle.

The team also could've signed Suh in the 2014 offseason — or sooner — when the market value was significantly lower. Or, when Watt and Buccaneers defensive tackle Gerald McCoy signed their massive extensions last September, the Lions could've opened negotiations despite saying in July they would table them for the entire season.

"That never made sense to me," Corry said. "Maybe that was a miscalculation and they thought Suh would price himself out of the market, and they'd be able to come back and give him a life preserver. The thing is, any time you have a great player, the longer you wait the more money it's going to cost you."

Signing Suh before the 2014 season and before Watt and McCoy struck their deals would've been the ideal scenario.

"The team should've signed a blank contract, given it to him and said fill in the numbers and been done with it if they really wanted him," Corry said.

$100 million man

There was a time last year when an $80 million contract for Suh seemed hard to fathom. In September 2013, Bengals All-Pro defensive tackle Geno Atkins signed a five-year, $54.8 million extension with only his $15 million signing bonus guaranteed.

Suh, though, was always going to surpass those numbers because his rookie contract was worth $64.5 million over five years with more than $23 million guaranteed. The old rookie wage scale, which ended the year after Suh was drafted, has hurt the Lions significantly in this pursuit because Johnson and Stafford had massive rookie deals, too.

But the Lions didn't re-sign Suh during the 2013 season or in the 2014 offseason in advance of a season in which he carried a $22.4 million cap hit, which could've been reduced by a new deal and opened more space for free agents. Negotiations last offseason paused for nearly two months after Suh fired Barnes in January and hired Sexton in March, with no explanation provided from any of the parties.

"You might've gotten him for Mario Williams money or a little less because you didn't have anything else really in the marketplace," Corry said.

In 2012, the Bills gave the defensive end Williams a six-year, $96 million deal with $31.4 million guaranteed. It was the most for a defensive player at the time.

Since the Lions tabled negotiations with Suh last July, deals with Watt and McCoy last September recalibrated the market. While Watt's contract numbers are the benchmark for Suh and Sexton, McCoy's six-year, $98 million deal ($51.5M guaranteed) proved defensive tackles are coveted in the league.

Contract factors

Knowing he can strike an enormous deal, the question now is, what are Suh's priorities?

If he wants to make as much money as possible, he could sign with a team that has no state income tax, like the Dolphins or Jaguars. Based on a recent analysis by Corry, if Suh signs a $102 million deal in Florida instead of Michigan, he'd see about $4.4 million more of the contract.

Ndamukong Suh had an excellent 2014 season, setting the stage for his huge contract.

The difference in net value on a contract of this magnitude can also be leverage for Suh and Sexton. When Corry co-negotiated former Vikings defensive tackle John Randle's contract, he also talked to the Dolphins to help drive up the price before ultimately getting a five-year, $32.5 million deal with $20 million guaranteed for his client, making him the highest-paid defensive player at the time.

"As the money gets bigger, it becomes more of a factor," Corry said.

Corry thinks Suh could have enough suitors that Sexton could pit them against each other, which he said is an agent's dream.

"Jimmy Sexton should rightfully ask for something outrageous, put the bait on the hook and see if somebody bites," Corry said.

While all signs are that money is the most important factor, Casserly said Suh should consider playing for a team that will help advance his career. Plenty of players have left good situations for money, including receivers Mike Wallace and Eric Decker recently.

"It's hard to make the Hall of Fame if you don't win," Casserly said.