Tough cuts? Important salary, roster decisions loom for Lions
Allen Park — It’s too early to say how much cap space the Detroit Lions will have to spend in 2019, but it’s not too early to estimate and highlight the major financial decisions the team faces this offseason.
First, the starting point. The salary cap was set at $177 million in 2018 and the NFL sent out a memo in December letting teams know it's projected to fall between $187-$191.1 million this year. For the sake of this story, we’ll be working with a $190 million estimation.
Additionally, unused cap space from the previous season carries over. The NFLPA currently lists the Lions as having $6.46 million unused in 2018. That’s the figure we’ll be working with here, although it’ll probably change slightly when it becomes official later this winter.
With a number of future/reserved deals signed, the Lions roster currently stands at 54 players. During the offseason only the top 51 salaries count toward the cap. Currently, the Lions have a little more than $164 million committed to those contracts.
Finally, the team has some dead money attached to previously released players and performance and playing time bonuses. Nevin Lawson and Devon Kennard both earned playing-time bonuses, totaling $800,000, while running back LeGarrette Blount netted $350,000 for scoring five rushing touchdowns.
Working with the aforementioned estimations, the Lions are currently set to enter the new league year with about $31 million in cap space. But we can't ignore funds that need to be set aside for the draft class.
A top-10 pick doesn't cost what it used to under the previous collective bargaining agreement, but the projected 2018 cap hit for the No. 8 pick Detroit currently holds is $3.6 million. The entire class of eight selections, factoring in contracts dropping off the top-51 calculation, is likely to eat up between $4-5 million of the team's space.
But there are a number of opportunities to create more cap room. We explore those decisions below:
Safety Glover Quin
►2019 cap hit: $7.9 million
►Dead money: $1.7 million
►Analysis: After five stellar seasons in Detroit, Quin's performance bottomed out in 2018. Whether that's because he's lost a step (he turned 33 on Tuesday), was a poor fit for Matt Patricia's scheme, or a combination of the two things, Quin finished with zero interceptions, three pass breakups and one tackle for loss.
Guard T.J. Lang
►2019 cap hit: $11.5 million
►Dead money: $2.7 million
►Analysis: The Lions paid big money to land Lang via free agency in 2017, and despite some durability issues out the gate, he earned Pro Bowl honors his first season with the franchise. He played well last year, too, but injuries limited him to six games. He hinted he'd be willing to take a pay cut to stay with his hometown team, and it would be tough to justify keeping him on the roster otherwise.
Defensive tackle Damon Harrison
►2019 cap hit: $7 million
►Dead money: $0
►Analysis: A midseason trade brought Harrison to Detroit and the move seemed to be just what the doctor ordered for a struggling defense. After adding the man they call Snacks, the Lions had the second-best run defense in the NFL. There's zero chance they let him go.
Running back Theo Riddick
►2019 cap hit: $4.6 million
►Dead money: $1.2 million
►Analysis: In a limited role, Riddick had his most effective season as a ball carrier, averaging 4.3 yards per carry. As a receiver, his primary role in the offense, he remained productive, with 61 catches. But on a per catch basis, he did less than ever with the grabs. That's because he stopped making tacklers miss in 2018.
Cornerback Nevin Lawson
►2019 cap hit: $5.9 million (includes $550,000 bonus)
►Dead money: $1.7 million
►Analysis: Lawson played the third-most defensive snaps for the Lions defense last season, splitting time between starting outside and in the nickel. His physical play limits the completions he allows, but also results in plenty of penalties. And his career-long struggles with ball skills persist. He broke up just five passes last season and is still looking for his first career interception. The Lions figure to be in the market for a cornerback this offseason, and $5.9 million might seem like a lot for a backup, but Lawson would provide reliable depth at multiple spots and he's a known commodity on multiple special teams units.
Safety Tavon Wilson
►2019 cap hit: $3.8 million
►Dead money: $875,000
►Analysis: With Quandre Diggs moving full time to safety, and rookie Tracy Walker being worked into the mix, Wilson's defensive playing time plummeted to 30.8 percent of the reps. But assuming the team parts ways with Quin, there will still be a need for safety depth. Wilson would be the most experienced option still on the roster.
Punter Sam Martin
►2019 cap hit: $3 million
►Dead money: $1 million
►Analysis: Martin bounced back in 2018, but still wasn't able to return to his 2016 form, when he was setting franchise records. The Lions could be tempted to snag a cheaper option in the draft. There's also Ryan Santoso, last year's training camp backup, who is back on a futures deal.
Linebacker Christian Jones
►2019 cap hit: $3.9 million
►Dead money: $875,000
►Analysis: Jones provided solid returns in his first season with the franchise, playing nearly two-thirds of the defensive snaps while recording 69 tackles, three pass breakups and a sack. The Lions could certainly be in the market for an upgrade at the weakside position this offseason, but it wouldn't be surprising to see the team stick it out with Jones, especially given his special teams contributions.
Guard Kenny Wiggins
►2019 cap hit: $3.1 million
►Dead money: $375,000
►Analysis: Wiggins played a lot last season, filling in for Lang after the veteran starter was lost for the year. As with any backup pressed into that kind of playing time, there were plenty of inconsistencies with his performance, particularly his pass protection against some of the league's better interior linemen. But the team clearly preferred him over the younger, cheaper Joe Dahl.
Wide receiver Marvin Jones
►2019 cap hit: $9.2 million
►Dead money: $5.4 million
►Analysis: It's highly unlikely the Lions would cut Jones. That wouldn't make much financial sense, given the cost of a replacement. But there's been some thought the Lions may shop him in the trade market, possibly to fill a different roster or to stock up on draft equity. Still, without adding another playmaking receiver via trade, free agency or early in the draft, moving Jones seems unlikely.
Releasing Quin and Lang would save the Lions $14 million after you add two contracts on to the bottom of the top-51 calculation. And, if the team is aggressive with its offseason overhaul, parting with Lawson, Riddick, Wilson, Jones, Martin and Wiggins could create upwards of $15 million more.
Regardless, the Lions are likely to be in the middle of the pack in space entering free agency. Nine teams are already projected to have more than $60 million to work with prior to making any roster moves. Still, the Lions should have enough to pursue even the top-of-the-market free agents, if that's general manager Bob Quinn's preference.