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Niyo: Harrison, Slay playing 'Let's Make a Deal' with Lions

John Niyo
The Detroit News
Damon Harrison

Allen Park — They talk about it every day. In meetings, in film sessions and whenever the opportunity arises on the practice field, too.

Ask Matt Patricia about building a championship football team and invariably he’ll mention “playing with leverage” in his answer. In many ways, it’s the very essence of the game, and when the Lions head coach talks about trying to “control the game,” that’s where he starts.

So we might as well start there when we talk about why two of the Lions’ defensive stars, Damon “Snacks” Harrison and Darius Slay, aren’t in attendance for the team’s mandatory minicamp this week.

All they’re doing at the moment is playing the game the way they’re taught, a lesson NFL players learn quickly in a league where contracts are made to be broken and the word of front-office executives is only as good as the money they’ll guarantee.

Complain about the example it sets if you want. But just know that whatever message two of the Lions’ defensive stars are sending by staying away from the team this spring is merely a reflection of the memo teams have been sending forever.

Players in this league routinely get cut before their contracts expire, with millions still owed on paper but nothing paid out in reality. Veteran guard T.J. Lang, released by the Lions back in March, is just one example of that. And when teams move on from players — cap casualties is what we usually call them — they’re praised as shrewd, or savvy. Yet when players try to turn the tables, they’re often portrayed as greedy malcontents.

To what extent that happens here remains to be seen. But let’s hold off on jumping to any conclusions about ulterior motives or actual consequences just because Harrison and Slay are skipping OTAs and a few minicamp practices.

No fuss

Their teammates aren’t, for what it’s worth.

“You know, we’re not worried about that,” said linebacker Devon Kennard, who is entering Year 2 of the three-year, $17.25 million contract he signed as the Lions’ biggest free-agency splash in 2018. “We’re focused on the guys that are here, getting better every day. And when they’re ready to come, they’ll come.”

Patricia said much the same Tuesday, while shrugging off the absences as “nothing (that’s) uncharted territory.”

If he’s frustrated, Patricia certainly isn’t saying so. He was asked Tuesday if it hampered the progress he’s hoping to make in his second offseason, building off the groundwork laid last year implementing a new defensive scheme.

“We roll with different situations that occur all the time during the season — injuries, guys here, not here, whatever the case may be,” he said. “For us internally, it doesn’t really affect us. We have great opportunities for guys that are here, great opportunities for people to step up.”

That’s just coach-speak, but what else is Patricia supposed to say? Or Kennard, for that matter. And just as it’s probably not fair to ask teammates to weigh in on other players’ business decisions, it’s also not fair to lump Harrison and Slay together, though that’s harder to do knowing both players are represented by the same powerful agent, Drew Rosenhaus. Harrison signed with Rosenhaus back in January, while Slay did so a few years ago, setting the stage for negotiations on that life-changing second NFL contract he signed prior to the 2016 season.

They’re different players at different positions and different stages of their career. And each carries a different value to the Lions, though it’s hard to imagine Detroit’s defense without either at this point.

Harrison’s arrival last year just prior to the NFL trade deadline helped transform the Lions’ run defense, and the 30-year-old veteran finished the season with 74 tackles, 3.5 sacks and two forced fumbles. Pro Football Focus rated him as the league’s best run defender. Yet the average annual value on Harrison’s current contract ($9.25 million) -- a contract the Lions could dump at any point with no salary-cap hit -- only ranks 15th among NFL defensive tackles. It was the sixth-highest in the league back when he signed that deal with the Giants three years ago. But today the sixth-highest AAV for the position belongs to the Titans’ Jurrell Casey at $15.1 million — just below the franchise-tag number — which gives you an idea of how the market has changed in just a short time period.

At first glance, Slay’s deal doesn’t seem as outdated, in part because he’s at a position that’s long been paid as a premium one in the league. Still, his AAV of just over $12 million only ranks 13th in the league at the moment, and for a 28-year-old player who is two years removed from earning first-team All-Pro honors and received a second straight Pro Bowl nod last season, that’s below market value, too. Especially considering the Lions’ inability to find a consistent playmaker to hold down the No. 2 corner spot opposite Slay for most of his career. More important for Slay, none of his remaining base salary is guaranteed.

So it’s not surprising that each is trying to use what little leverage they have with two years remaining on their current deals and an NFL work stoppage looming in 2021, right when those contracts are set to expire. Likewise, it’s easy to understand why Lions general manager Bob Quinn might be reluctant to renegotiate those contracts, setting a precedent he might not feel he can afford to make.

No risk, no reward

But that’s the gamble the players have to be willing to take, forgoing a $250,000 workout bonus and knowing they’ll be fined nearly $90,000 more if they miss this entire three-day minicamp — $14,775 for missing Day 1, twice that for missing Day 2, and three times that for missing the final day. The hope is they recoup considerably more than that in the coming weeks or months.

The players don’t always get what they want, obviously. Everyone knows the system is rigged in the owners' favor. But for every Le’Veon Bell situation, there’s several more holdouts where players do force management’s hand and get something extra. And frankly, I’m not sure Quinn, who has yet to give an extension to a player who wasn't entering a contract year, really can afford to play hardball the way he’d like to, what with Patricia coming off a 6-10 debut season.

Likewise, it’s too easy to get caught up in the semantics surrounding the NFL’s offseason, from the “voluntary” workouts to the “mandatory” camp. As Slay noted in a Twitter post earlier this spring, responding to a suggestion that NFL teams should make the entire offseason program mandatory in its next labor agreement, “When they guarantee all our money, (then) we might think about it.” 

Call it a holdout if it makes you feel better, I guess. But this standoff doesn’t really get real until the player decides not to show up for training camp, which is still more than seven weeks away. And at the moment, neither Harrison nor Slay has given any indication — publicly, at least — that’s part of their plan.

That means Quinn and Rosenhaus have time to work something out, whether it’s a new contract extension or perhaps reworking current deals to include more guarantees, which is essentially what the Denver Broncos just did with Pro Bowl cornerback Chris Harris. 

The Lions have plenty of salary cap room and at least some incentive to get a deal done. And whatever leverage the players have right now, they seem intent on using it. In case you hadn't noticed, that's how this game works.

Twitter: @JohnNiyo