NFL: What’s Next for Ndamukong Suh and the Detroit Lions?

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The Detroit Lions have officially decided to pass on using their franchise tag on five-time All-Pro defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh. Suh would have received a fully guaranteed $26.89 million salary with the franchise tag, which, combined with the $9.7 million in dead money that the Lions are already on the hook for from Suh’s rookie contract, would have given the former Nebraska Cornhusker a whopping salary cap hit of $36.59 million for the 2015 season.

The Lions are now facing a hard deadline of March 10 in their negotiations with Suh on a long-term deal, but they also may be forced with facing the harsh reality that their best defensive player wants a change of scenery. Detroit General Manager Martin Mayhew has made it clear that he wants to lock his star defensive tackle to a long-term extension, but at this point, Suh is no longer tied to the Lions and has no further obligation to continue negotiations with the only franchise he has known during his professional career.

While Mayhew may be doing his best to sign his star defender, the Lions simply may not be able to afford the type of contract Suh is looking for, with only $17.85 million of salary cap space. It’s no secret that he wants to be the highest-paid defensive player in the league, so it’s safe to assume that Suh and his agent, Jimmy Sexton, will be looking for something that eclipses both of the mega-deals signed by J.J. Watt and Gerald McCoy.

Watt’s contract averages $16.7 million per year, while McCoy’s averages $15.9 million per year. Watt and McCoy both signed their extensions before testing the free agency market. With Suh, there will be an open bidding war between several teams. Unfortunately for Detroit, there are multiple teams around the league that have the salary cap space available to offer Suh a contract that averages close to, or possible more than, $20 million per year.

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According to sources close to Suh, the mammoth defensive tackle is looking to continue his career on the West Coast, preferably with a Super Bowl contender. The Portland native is reportedly enamored with the idea of playing for the Seattle Seahawks, but like the Lions, the Seahawks may find it extremely difficult to offer Suh the type of contract he is looking for while also signing quarterback Russell Wilson to a long-term extension.

The top contenders for Suh’s services are more than likely the teams with the most salary cap space. If Suh truly wishes to play on the West Coast, then he could very well end up signing with the Oakland Raiders, who have $53.5 million in salary cap space and are said to be highly interested in signing the 2010 NFL rookie of the year. The only other West Coast team that could afford to make a run at signing Suh is the San Diego Chargers, but in reality they will need to conserve their cap space to address other positions.

If Suh is set on signing with a legitimate Super Bowl contender while also being paid the way he expects to be paid, his best option is likely the Indianapolis Colts. The Colts have $43.67 million in salary cap space, meaning that they could realistically sign Suh while also signing Andrew Luck to a long-term extension. He would instantly help upgrade a Colts defense that was incredibly inconsistent in 2014.

Other teams to keep an eye on are the New York Jets, who have $49.64 million in cap space; the Atlanta Falcons, who have $31.16 million in cap space; the Tennessee Titans, who have $40.99 million in cap space; the Cleveland Browns, who have $51.19 million in cap space; and the Jacksonville Jaguars, who have $61.58 million in cap space.

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If Suh signs with another franchise, as expected, Detroit will have a glaring hole in the middle of its defense. The Lions’ first step in addressing the issue will likely be to re-sign Nick Fairley, another impending in-house free agent defensive tackle.

Luckily for the Lions, the free agent market is full of talented defensive tackles. None of them are as impactful as Suh, but the Lions could easily afford to make a run at guys like Terrance Knighton, Stephen Paea, Henry Melton, or Jared Odrick.

It is extremely rare that a player of Suh’s caliber reaches unrestricted free agency. Only time will tell where he ends up playing in 2015, but all signs point toward Suh leaving the Detroit Lions to cash in with a big-time payday from another franchise this offseason.