Lions have plenty to spend as free agency gets underway
Allen Park — The NFL's new league year is upon us.
At noon on Monday, teams are officially permitted to enter into contract negotiations with the representatives of impending unrestricted free agents. On Wednesday, at 4 p.m., those players can begin signing contracts.
This won't be anything like baseball, where mega stars linger unsigned for months. By the end of the week, most of the top NFL players will have deals done.
This offseason, the league's salary cap went up for the eighth consecutive year, jumping 6.2 percent to $188.2 million. That's more than a 50-percent increase than what it was a decade ago.
After cutting guard T.J. Lang late last week, and reportedly parting ways with cornerback Nevin Lawson this weekend, the Detroit Lions will enter the spending period with approximately $43.8 million in cap space. After you factor out the portions that need to be set aside for the draft class and an in-season, rainy-day fund (the Lions carried over $6.5 million from a year ago), the team has about $34 million to bolster the roster.
That's slightly more than league average and the most in the NFC North.
And, technically, Detroit is in position to create more cap space, if needed. There are several cuts that could provide more funds, including running back Theo Riddick ($3.66 million), linebacker Christian Jones ($3.3 million), safety Tavon Wilson ($2.9 million) and guard Kenny Wiggins ($2.75 million).
There are certainly plenty of holes to fill. In addition to the openings created by the Lang and Lawson releases, the Lions could use a running back to complement Kerryon Johnson, a slot receiver to replace Golden Tate, multiple tight ends and a pass rusher. Plus, it never hurts to add quality depth elsewhere, including a backup quarterback for Matthew Stafford.
But general manager Bob Quinn made it clear he's not going to spend just to spend.
"I know free agency is important, I know that’s part of the roster-building process, as is the draft," Quinn said in January. "Any chance a player is available, we look at it. If we think it’s a fit, we acquire them. Will we have a splash signing in free agency? I don’t know. We might, we might not. ... I’m not into splash signings, I’m into good football players."
Quinn has shelled out top dollar to add a player he wants in the past. He paid a premium for wide receiver Marvin Jones in 2016. A year later, Quinn awarded Rick Wagner the NFL's biggest contract for a right tackle and outbid Green Bay and Seattle for Lang.
The general manager has also shown restraint when the market exceeds Detroit's valuation of a player or position. That's a good long-term strategy, but can hinder the franchise in the short-term, the way it did last year when the Lions were left empty-handed when they couldn't land any of the top tight ends available.
"You guys can assess blame as you choose, but we’re aggressive in the way we go out evaluating players and we’re aggressive in the way we go after players, but there’s a ceiling of what we think the value is," Quinn said. "Sometimes it works out, sometimes it doesn’t."
So what exactly can $34 million buy the Lions? A lot, actually. But comparing year-to-year free agency can be tricky, because of the changes in positional depth and demand.
For example, the top cornerbacks a year ago -- Trumaine Johnson, Malcolm Butler and Kyle Fuller -- all scored deals 4-5 years long, averaging at least $12 million per season. Yet, this year, the available cornerback talent isn't anywhere near as good. The consensus best player at the position, Ronald Darby, has missed 15 games the past two years and is currently recovering from an ACL tear.
While at defensive end, Vinny Curry and Trent Murphy each received three-year deals averaging between $7-8 million in 2018, topping the market. This year, Trey Flowers is expected to command offers that could peak at an annual value of $18 million.
The Lions certainly have the funds to pay Flowers, the best player available at a position of need. It's a matter of whether Quinn feels the splash to reconnect the edge defender with coach Matt Patricia is worth the cost.
And even if the Lions did sign Flowers, they could still afford to add two or three starter-level salaries, players like Pittsburgh tight end Jesse James or Tampa Bay slot receiver Adam Humphries.
So let the bidding begin.