Coming off the team's first playoff appearance since 1999, the Detroit Lions have 20 players who will be unrestricted free agents this offseason.
While that list includes injury replacements (punter Ben Graham) and veteran depth guys for 2011 (Erik Coleman, Chris Harris), the list also includes key cogs on defense (Cliff Avril, Stephen Tulloch, Eric Wright) and a decision on left tackle Jeff Backus, who will turn 35 early in the 2012 regular season and is coming off a torn biceps.
Lions general manager Martin Mayhew discussed the challenging offseason on Thursday.
"In the past, we were just looking at acquiring good players," Mayhew said according to Chris McCosky of The Detroit News. "Now we have good players. Which ones can we keep? Which ones are we not going to be able to keep and can we replace those players with the same talent level — at a better price or at the same price? There are a lot of different challenges."
According to my calculations, Lions have 46 players under contract for next season and already have a cap number that is in the middle of a projected 2012 salary cap range of $120.375 million and $125 million per team. The Lions did not have a great deal of cap space remaining in 2011, so their adjusted 2012 cap figure won't be much higher than the league number and will only increase with restricted free agent and exclusive rights free agent tenders, along with base salary increases based on playing time and performance incentives. The Lions will also need space to franchise Avril if a long-term deal is not reached, which could cost around $11 million in 2012.
Detroit will need to clear some cap space for 2012 and the quickest way to do that is with extensions and restructures of their most expensive players.
Mayhew confirmed that Pro Bowl wide receiver Calvin Johnson will have a cap number north of $20 million (I have it at closer to $23 million) in 2012, the final year of his rookie contract. The $20 million or so in cash Johnson is due this season matches what Arizona Cardinals wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald received in Year One of his seven-year, $113 million contract extension -- which included $45 million in guaranteed money -- in August.
The Lions could rework quarterback Matthew Stafford's contract again. Stafford lowered his $9 million base salary to the league minimum ($525,000) last August, taking the $8.475 million difference in a signing bonus that was spread out over four season. Stafford is scheduled to make $10.5 million in 2012 and has a cap number of $16.1 million, two figures that will increase by $1 million with Stafford hitting certain performance incentives in his rookie contract.
From 2010-13, Stafford has $1 million in base salary escalation available if he makes certain Pro Bowl/All-NFL teams, or is named league MVP, or if ranks in the Top 5 in either passing yards, passing touchdowns or passing rating. In his first full season in the NFL, Stafford ranked in the Top 5 in all three of those categories, which will increase his base salary to $11.5 million and cap number to just over $17 million.
Defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh is entering his third season and can now have his contract reworked. Suh is due $9.25 million in base salary with a cap number of nearly $12.72 million. A restructure similar to what Stafford did last season could clear $6.5 million of cap space for 2012 and reduce the amount of base salary Suh would forfeit if he were suspended again by the NFL.