Allen Park – With the official opening of free agency arriving Wednesday afternoon, the Detroit Lions have less cap space to work with than most teams, but still enough to be active plugging some roster holes.
HOW MUCH CAP SPACE DO THE LIONS HAVE?
According to our calculations, the Lions currently have a little more than $27 million in space entering the new league year. That’s based on the $177.2 million salary cap for the 2018 season, $4.15 million in unused cap space carried over from last year, $6.44 million in dead money from players no longer on the roster ($4.8 million from former linebacker DeAndre Levy) and $147.69 million for the top 51 player contracts.
HOW THE LIONS CAN CREATE MORE SPACE
The Lions could always create more cap space by trading or releasing a player, or restructuring one of the team’s larger contracts, pushing the cap obligations to future years. The most obvious option, based on recent rumblings, would be trading tight end Eric Ebron.
Moving Ebron could clear an additional $7.8 million from Detroit’s books, assuming the compensation is draft picks and the team doesn’t take back another contract in a deal.
The only realistic cap casualties on the roster are defensive linemen Akeem Spence and Cornelius Washington, who would save the Lions $2.75 million and $2.72 million, respectively, if released. But given the team’s continued needs up front, neither move seems likely.
WILL THE LIONS SPEND IT ALL IN FREE AGENCY?
Just because the Lions have $27 million in cap space, it doesn’t mean they’ll spend it all. There are future considerations for some of those funds, including a draft class. Over The Cap estimates the Lions’ current slate of six selections will cost $5.5 million, but the cap hit will be closer to $3 million because only 51 contracts are used in the calculation during the offseason.
But once the regular season begins, all 53 contracts, plus the team’s 10-man practice squad and any players on the physically unable to perform list or injured reserve will be counted against the cap. So teams need to exit the offseason with some buffer.
Plus, Lions general manager Bob Quinn prefers to maintain a rainy-day fund, in case of injuries or if a veteran capable of contributing becomes available late in the offseason, whether via release or trade.
As noted above, any unused cap space carries over to the next season.
WHY $27 MILLION IS MORE THAN IT SEEMS
Finally, it’s important to note that the structure of long-term contracts almost always have lower cap numbers at the beginning of the deal, allowing the team to spend more freely than their cap situation might initially indicate.
For example, take Rick Wagner’s contract from last season. The Lions awarded the free agent right tackle a five-year, $47.5 million deal. That’s an average of $9.5 million per season, but in the first two years, 2017 and 2018, had cap hits of just $5.9 million.
Another example would be cornerback Darius Slay’s four-year, $48 million contract extension, signed in 2016, which carries just a $6.1 million cap hit for this season.
All that to say, if the Lions want to target a big name on the open market this year, they would easily be able to make it work.
LIONS’ TOP-5 NEEDS ENTERING FREE AGENCY
1. Defensive line: Whether it’s end or tackle, the Lions need help. The bigger need is on the inside, where starting tandem A’Shawn Robinson and Spence are decent, but the depth borders on non-existent unless you believe Jeremiah Ledbetter will make a significant jump in his second season.
2. Linebacker: Detroit is set at middle linebacker for the foreseeable future with Jarrad Davis, but the team will be looking for depth on the outside. Jalen Reeves-Maybin is primed for a bigger role, but with Tahir Whitehead, Paul Worrilow and Nick Bellore all hitting the open market, the unit is precariously thin.
3. Guard: Travis Swanson is a free agent and Graham Glasgow is expected to move to center in 2018. That creates an opening at left guard, where a plug-and-play veteran could be an appealing addition.
4. Running back: Last year’s collective averaged 3.4 yards per carry. Yeah, there were plenty of problems with the blocking that contributed to the struggles, but the Lions are in the market for a backfield upgrade, as well.
5. Cornerback: With Quandre Diggs potentially sticking at safety, and Nevin Lawson and D.J. Hayden’s deals expiring, the Lions need to add depth to their young trio of Darius Slay, Teez Tabor and Jamal Agnew.