Should The Lions Pay Suh Or Let Him Walk?
Detroit Lions DT Ndamukong Suh is in the final year of his five-year, $63.5 million rookie contract, and rumors have swirled all offseason about whether or not GM Martin Mayhew will open his pockets and give his star defensive lineman what could very well be the largest contract for a defensive player. Talks have hit a stalemate, as the Lions have tabled negotiations until after the 2014 season comes to end, but that doesn’t mean that the issue will go away.
The Lions will obviously have to address the Suh situation in due time, and the critical question to be discussed is whether or not Suh actually deserves a nine-figure salary.
The first part of this answer involves Suh’s statistics. By nature, defensive tackles are supposed to be tough on the run up the middle while pressuring the quarterback on the pass rush. Sacks don’t necessarily have to be high, but if they aren’t, the rest of the team’s should be in an ideal situation.
Suh’s power, strength and ability to chase down the football have made him widely considered to be one of the best defensive tackles in the NFL today. He began is career gathering 10 sacks and six stuffs before tailing off in 2011 and 2012 (more on that later). Last season, Suh returned to his Pro Bowl-quality form while contributing to one of the best rush defenses in the league.
That said, Suh’s inability to anchor the team’s defense in his two down years -- especially after his strong rookie season -- led many to wonder if Suh was the real deal. Had his contract run out prior to 2013, this conversation may not have happened to this extent.
Overall, Suh has collected 27.5 sacks in his four seasons (just under seven per season), 23 stuffs and has even defended 12 passes, all while playing in all but two games in that timespan. His presence has been constant throughout his four seasons, but has not always been a positive one.
The second part of this answer has to do with the history of large contracts in the NFL, specifically for defensive linemen. It may not be extensive, but that doesn’t mean they can’t and shouldn’t be considered.
Most prominent in this list is the seven-year, $100 million deal that Albert Haynesworth signed with the Washington Redskins in 2009. Six years into the contract, Haynesworth has played just 33 games for three different teams, and hasn’t suited up since 2011. That deal clearly didn’t work out, and while it’s unlikely that Suh would experience the same kind of downfall as Haynesworth, any general manager that decides to take on a long-term deal with Suh will have to address the Haynesworth deal at some point.
For another example, head to Buffalo and take a look at Mario Williams. The former first-overall pick of the Houston Texans joined the Bills in 2012 for six years and $96 million, and has performed well to start. In two seasons with Buffalo, Williams has put together 23.5 sacks, has demonstrated the flexibility to play at multiple positions and was even named to the NFL Top 100 this January.
Rumors are that Suh would be looking at a contract greater than those of Williams and Haynesworth, which would mean that whichever team chooses to go after Suh would need to be sure that he can live up to the massive contract. No player’s performance is ever guaranteed, but taking a nine-figure risk on one of the most physical positions in the game may be too great for a team like the Lions to take on.
The third part of this answer is strictly Lions-specific, because after all, it’s the Lions who would be paying the man. The Lions brass can look at all the history they want, but it’s ultimately on them to decide if Suh is worth a potential record-breaking contract while continuing to build a championship-caliber team.
For the Lions, the intangibles argument will play a large part in possibly extending Suh past this coming season. He is undoubtedly the team’s emotional and physical leader on defense, and losing him would almost be like letting the defense’s identity walk.
Few players in the league also carry the reputation that Suh does -- both for his play and for his attitude. Having an NFL “bad boy” plugging up the middle of the running lane and forcing coordinators to adjust their game plans is an attractive feature when it comes to keeping Suh, and will absolutely be a factor in Detroit's decision.
Suh’s biggest factor working against him is the rest of the roster, and the money that they command. QB Matthew Stafford will make at least $9.5 million per year once his contract extension takes hold, and his chum Calvin Johnson will command at least $12.5 million per year starting in 2015. Throw in the contracts of WR Golden Tate and RB Reggie Bush, and the Lions are in over $30 million per year for just four players. Adding another substantial contract to that would keep Suh’s reputation in Detroit long-term, but could inhibit the team from making any other sizable moves.
Considering the circumstances, the Lions would be wise to not overpay for Suh. With the history of large defensive line contracts and the monetary hole that another sizable contract would put the Lions into, the risk here outweighs the reward. However, if Suh is willing to come down on his asking price -- which is highly unlikely -- the Lions could consider taking on a not-as-large contract. Otherwise, using that money to re-sign Nick Fairley and either using homegrown talent or bringing in a free agent would be the better use of what is likely to be around $100 million.
The Lions are clearly playing for keeps, and fans are loving it. Their team wants a championship and is pulling out all the stops to do it. However, the Lions aren’t close enough to a championship that signing Suh to a massive contract will get them there -- they’ll need the money to fill the roster with guys like OLB Ashlee Palmer and OL Larry Warford.
Unless Suh takes a hefty hometown discount to return to Detroit, the Lions would be better off investing their money elsewhere.