Phoenix — The Detroit Lions entered free-agency with a healthy amount of cap space, went on a spending spree at the open of the market and still are sitting pretty with more than $28 million in cap space, according to the most recent NFLPA records.
Contracts numbers are typically deceptive. The most important number is guarantees. And with many of the deals back-loaded, only a handful of players see the end of their deals, where they'd earn significant portions of their salary.
For example, Trey Flowers' five-year deal with the Lions averages $18 million per season, but his first year cap hit is $6.4 million, while the final two years have $23.2 million and $23.6 million cap hits. Or cornerback Justin Coleman, another recent signing. His $2.9 million cap hit in 2019 is hardly reflective of the four-year, $36-million contract he signed. And he might not see the final two years of the contract, when the hits are $11 million each year.
The Lions further spaced out their cap obligations in 2019 by including automatically voidable years at the end of multiple contracts, including tight end Jesse James and defensive end Romeo Okwara.
What that allows the Lions to do is spread out the impact of a signing bonus over an extra season, for cap purposes.
So why are the Lions pushing some cap responsibilities back, while maintaining such a surplus in 2019? While declining to go into specifics, general manager Bob Quinn explained the team's cap strategy is a multi-year picture.
"I would say you have to look at the salary cap in a two- or three-year lens," Quinn said. "You can't just sit and look at, 'OK, this is the 2019 Detroit Lions salary cap.' When you structure deals, you have to look at over a two- or three-year period, or you can set yourself up for failure two years from now. That's kind of why some of those things we had to do that you guys look up is the reason we had to do those things, and why we feel like we did."
As it currently stands, the Lions already have more than $150 million committed to the cap in 2020 and nearly $100 million in 2021.
There are several players who could merit extensions in the next two years, including cornerback Darius Slay, center Graham Glasgow, linebacker Jarrad Davis and defensive tackles A'Shawn Robinson and Damon Harrison.
The Lions still have plenty of space for 2019. Some of that will go to the draft class and second-wave free agent signings, potentially even a trade acquisition. Whatever is unused will carry over into 2020.