Detroit Lions  

 

Calvin Johnson's mega-deal just tip of the iceberg for Lions

Tim Heitman/US Presswire
Calvin Johnson, Matthew Stafford and Ndamukong Suh (from left to right) all were drafted in the top two picks.

The Detroit Lions have a problem.

But it's a good problem to have, and one the franchise certainly can overcome, given all it's been through.

The re-signing of Calvin Johnson is the first in what's likely to be a trifecta of mega-deals the Lions dish out in the next couple years. It illustrates the problems with the old rookie salary system, and the issues it presented (and continues to present) for high-drafting teams.

The new deal for the No. 2 overall pick in 2007 -- which is worth a max of roughly $131 million over the next eight years, with $53 million in real guarantees -- is the first domino to fall. Quarterback Matthew Stafford (No. 1 pick in 2009) likely will be next, followed by defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh (No. 2 in 2010).

Those three were drafted within the final four years of the old rookie salary system, and each went within the first two picks, meaning all signed balance-busting deals to come aboard. And the structure of those deals gave players leverage going into a second contract, the one that sets up a player for life.

Of course, this issue for a team is far more workable than landing a dud. As one Lions source said, "I'd much rather have the three of them, and have to work with Stafford and Suh and Johnson, than be caught with JaMarcus Russell. And let's be honest, we had our own guys like that, in Charles Rogers and Joey Harrington."

On each of the three rookie contracts, the final year is set up to have the look of a franchise tag number, something initiated with D'Brickashaw Ferguson's first contract with the Jets. Prior to re-signing, Johnson's cap number was set to be $21 million, according to union figures. Prior to his signing, the other two reworked their deals to make them more cap friendly, but each inflated the cap number on the back end -- Stafford's 2014 figure went from $16.6 million to $19.3 million, and Suh's 2014 shot from $15.1 million to $17.57 million.

Those big numbers can sap the urgency to re-sign on the player's side, and force the club's hand to move, based on their salary situation. Also, it makes the franchise numbers even bigger the following year, if the club just wants to ride out the situation. (Johnson's franchise figure for 2013 would have been a whopping $25.2 million.)

So the Lions had to operate, in negotiating Johnson's deal, knowing that they'd be sinking $46.2 million into their books over the next two years on him if they didn't move. Little wonder then that the hard guarantees in this deal came out in the $50 million neighborhood.

The Lions think they'll be able to handle having their three cornerstones on the books going forward. It likely will make it more difficult for them to do many more high-bonus, low-salary deals that push cap charges into the future, even with the TV deal pushing the cap figures up significantly in 2014. But considering what they're getting -- in Johnson, Stafford and Suh -- the club will be OK with that.

Follow Albert Breer on Twitter @AlbertBreer

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