MIKE O'HARA

O'HARA'S MONDAY COUNTDOWN: A look-ahead at 2014 the day after the Super Bowl

Posted Feb 3, 2014

The Lions will place a heavy focus on Ndamukong Suh's contract situation as signing period nears

Ndamukong SuhThe Lions will have a strong focus on Ndamukong Suh's contract situation this offseason. (Photo: G. Smith/Detroit Lions)

”So, is it Sammy Watkins?”

A sales clerk got his hopeful question in about how the Lions could fill a pressing need at wide receiver in the draft before I could ask where to find something in the store to help with a 365,000-days-a-year home-improvement project. (No one seems to stock a robotic caulking gun. The search continues.)

The Lions are fertile ground for debate for Detroit sports fans over who they should add, cut or keep. Look for the Lions to do all three in what could be significant roster changes from free agency signings that begin on March 11, and in the draft May 8-10.

The late-season skid that left the Lions out of the playoffs and triggered a change in head coaches -- Jim Caldwell in from his previous job as offensive coordinator of the Baltimore Ravens, Jim Schwartz getting the thumb and relocating to Buffalo as defensive coordinator – could affect personnel moves.

A new coach is bound to have fresh ideas on the players he wants to run his systems.

This week's Monday Countdown looks at key issues and major decisions that have to be made as the 2014 season begins in earnest on the day after Super Bowl XLVIII.

There is a heavy emphasis on Ndamukong Suh's contract situation, getting help for the offense and what the Lions can look for in the draft with the 10th pick in the first round.

There's also a look back at the voting for this year's Pro Football Hall of Fame, a look ahead at future votes, and how the Dallas Morning News rates the Cowboys' Dez Bryant in its top 10 list of receivers.

We start with Suh:

1. Leverage: Suh has it as he goes into the final year of the five-year rookie deal he signed when he was drafted second overall in 2010, and dealing with Suh having the hammer is a fact of negotiating life.

Suh's decision to change agents, almost certainly aligning himself with the duo of Jay-Z and Creative Artists Agency, likely will add a layer of drama that was missing when Rosey Barnes did Suh's rookie deal that paid him handsomely – almost $52 million in salary and bonuses in the first four years.

Suh has held up his end on the field, making the Pro Bowl three of four years and being voted first-team All Pro twice.

As a strict personnel decision, it's not that complicated a proposition. Sign him. Odds are against replacing Suh with a defensive tackle as good as he is.

However, Year 5 in 2014 is the rub because of the impact on the salary cap. Without a contract extension, he costs $22.4 million against the cap. If he's traded or released, the Lions take a hit of $19.4 million.

Ideally for the Lions, a new deal is worked out with Suh that keeps him a Lion for another four or five years and reduces his 2014 cap hit to its 2013 range of $10.4 million.

Ideally for Suh, he strikes a landmark deal that raises the standard for all defensive tackles.

2. Trading times: This is purely hypothetical, but suppose negotiations with Suh reach a point that the Lions think is unacceptable for the combined value of performance and cap space allocated to a defensive tackle.

In that scenario, the question is whether a trade is realistic, and if it could benefit the Lions.

If Suh is traded, the $19.4-million cap hit comes into play, but its $3 million less than the $22.4 million cap value Suh would have in 2014 without a renegotiation.

Any trade would have to take those cap figures into consideration.
 
3. Financial bottom line: Under the rookie wage scale put in place in 2011, rookies come relatively cheap compared to top-shelf veterans.

For example, in 2013, guard Jonathan Cooper (Cardinals), wide receiver Tavon Austin (Rams) and cornerback Dee Milliner (Jets) were drafted with picks 7-8-9 in the first round. Their cap numbers respectively for 2013 were $2.64 million, $2.31 million and $2.30 million.

All three signed four-year contracts. Cooper had the highest value, $14.55 million.

Trading Suh for a first-round pick only, in the range of 7-9 in the first round, would have a combined cap cost about the same as keeping Suh at his current $22.4 million cap figure for 2014 without a new contract.

4. Talent-level bottom line: Player-for-player, it's not reasonable to expect to get a player of Suh's ability in return in a trade.

However, of the six interior defensive linemen who were voted to the Pro Bowl this season, only two were on playoff teams – Dontari Poe of the Chiefs and Justin Smith of the 49ers.

But suppose the Lions traded Suh for first- and third-round picks and the draft produced the equivalent of Ziggy Ansah and Larry Warford from the strong 2013 draft? Add to that their own first-round pick. Does that make trading Suh more palatable?

5. The draft and Sammy Watkins: The first round is three months and five days from today, and Watkins is the early consensus pick to be the first receiver drafted. I say "early consensus,” because the draft is not set in stone, even at the top.

Last year, offensive tackle Luke Joeckel of Texas A&M was the presumptive No. 1 pick by Kansas City until just before the draft. The Chiefs took Eric Fisher of Central Michigan, and Joeckel went to Jacksonville with the second pick.

The Lions need a receiver who can stand alone on his talent and help dictate coverage, not a complement to Calvin Johnson. Even with Johnson's supernatural ability, if there isn't another receiving threat, defensive backs will tee off on him, and he'll continue to have to play hurt.

Most early mock drafts have Watkins off the board when the Lions drafted at No. 10. After Watkins are Mike Evans of Texas A&M and Marqise Lee of Southern Cal, but not as top 10 candidates. For now.

6. Quarterback coach: It is one position that Caldwell hasn't filled on his staff, and I don't see any rush to hire one just to have one on the staff.

Joe Lombardi, the new offensive coordinator, was quarterbacks coach in New Orleans, where he worked with Drew Brees.

Among other duties, Caldwell was quarterbacks coach at Tampa Bay, Indianapolis and Baltimore, and Indy's head coach for three years.

The question in adding a quarterbacks coach is how much value a third voice would add, along with what Shaun Hill has contributed as Stafford's backup the last four years. That's assuming Hill returns. He becomes a free agent on March 11.

Barry SandersBarry Sanders was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2004.

7. Hall of Fame: What surprised me most in the Class of 2014 was cornerback Aeneas Williams getting in ahead of other final 15 candidates such as guard Will Shields or Tony Dungy, and wide receiver Andre Reed beating out Marvin Harrison.

It was Reed's eighth year as a finalist, and his career at Buffalo was worthy of making the Hall. The fact that Reed hadn't made it in seven previous years as a finalist made it seem as though he'd be left knocking on the door but never invited to join the party.

Dungy will make it eventually. The timing has to be right for coaches, owners and executives because of the backlog of so many deserving players.

All in all, the 2014 class is a good one – Walter Jones, Derrick Brooks, Michael Strahan, Reed and Williams from the modern-era group, and seniors Ray Guy and Claude Humphrey.

The one thing it lacks is a transcendent star like Barry Sanders or Emmitt Smith.

8. Mega-Hall: Calvin Johnson is on track to make the Hall of Fame. It's just a matter of longevity. It would help to get to the postseason regularly. That's where Andre Reed made his mark with Bills teams that went to four straight Super Bowls.

In his one playoff game against the Saints in the 2011 season, Johnson was the best player in this galaxy – 12 catches, 211 yards and two TDs.

9. Dez Bryant: The Dallas Morning News ranked him No. 2 in his list of the NFL's top 10 receivers.

No. 1: Calvin Johnson.

Even in his hometown, Bryant is in Megatron's shadow.