Lions now looking at about $25-$30 million available to spend on free agents

Justin Rogers
The Detroit News

Allen Park — Now that the NFL has reached a labor agreement, the league set its 2020 salary cap at $198.2 million. 

What does that mean for the Detroit Lions? If the franchise is hoping to bolster its roster via free agency, it has plenty of cap space to spend. 

Byron Jones is considered the best free-agent cornerback on the market and could be a target of the Lions, especially if they trade Darius Slay.

Here's a quick breakdown. 

In addition to the $198.2 million, the Lions are also carrying over nearly $18 million in unused cap space from the 2019 season. That is largely offset by the team's dead money obligations, or cap hits for players no longer on the roster.

After cutting offensive tackle Rick Wagner on Friday, the team's dead money ballooned close to $16 million. The majority of that amount can be attributed to Wagner ($5.8 million), defensive tackle Damon Harrison ($5 million) and safety Quandre Diggs ($3.6 million). 

That leaves the team approximately $200 million to spend on the roster, including its upcoming draft class. 

It should be noted, only the top-51 paid players on the roster count toward the cap during the offseason. The Lions' roster is currently well over 51 players, and estimating the cap hit for long snapper Don Muhlbach, who re-signed with the team Saturday, the Lions have approximately $149 million committed to those 51 players. 

Now you're looking at $50-51 million remaining in the budget. Holding back an estimated $11 million for the draft class and another $10-15 million for a rainy-day fund to cover any potential offseason injuries, or space to absorb acquiring a player in a trade, the Lions can safely spend between $25-$30 million in free agency when the market opens. 

So what can you buy with that amount? Well, quite a bit. 

More: Lions defensive free agency preview: Will Detroit pay up if Darius Slay is traded?

More: Lions offensive free agency preview: Intriguing options available

We can look to last year as an example. When free agency opened the Lions quickly signed defensive end Trey Flowers, cornerback Justin Coleman and tight end Jesse James. Flowers' deal was valued at five years and $90 million, while Coleman got $36 million over four years and James netted $22.6 million over four years. 

By straight averages, that would be more than $32 million per year, but multi-year NFL contracts are typically back-loaded to offset the immediate cash funds the team pays out in signing bonuses.

Going back to Flowers, Coleman and James, that trio of players only cost $11.6 million against the cap in their first year on the roster. That means the Lions are in position to be aggressive in free agency, including targeting top-of-the-market players, if they choose that route.

The team has a lot of work to do between now and the start of the season. Detroit obviously has a number of needs, particularly in the trenches, where the team is suddenly light on offensive linemen and in desperate need of a defensive tackle or two. 

As of now, the league year and free agency is still on schedule to open Wednesday, despite COVID-19 concerns, but there's a growing expectation that gets pushed back.

Whether it's this week or a later date, the opening of free agency will be preceded by a two-day negotiation window, where teams can work out contract figures with the representatives of pending free agents. No contact is permitted between teams and players during this period and no contracts can be finalized until the start of free agency.