As rookie contracts spiraled out of control during the last decade under the old Collective-Bargaining Agreement, the Lions hamstrung themselves by devoting big money to bad draft picks like Charles Rogers and Joey Harrington. Fortunately for Lions fans, the team eventually started devoting big money to good draft picks like Calvin Johnson, Matthew Stafford and Ndamukong Suh, and those players are a big part of the reason the Lions are no longer picking near the top of the draft.
The bad news, however, is that Johnson, Stafford and Suh were Top 2 picks in the final three years before the new rookie wage scale was implemented, and that means the three of them have massive contracts that leave the team without a lot of salary cap flexibility elsewhere. And as Johnson enters the final year of his rookie deal, the Lions desperately want to sign him to a long-term contract that both ensures he’ll spend the prime years of his career in Detroit and frees up some cap space.
As the second overall pick in the 2007 NFL draft, Johnson signed a six-year contract worth up to $64 million, and unlike the first overall pick that year, JaMarcus Russell, Johnson has actually played well and earned many of the incentives that push up the total value of the deal. Johnson’s cap number for 2012 is more than $21 million, which comes from a $14 million base salary, a $4.5 million roster bonus due next week, and more than $2.5 million in bonuses that were part of the incentives he earned last season and will count against the cap this season.
With that cap number the Lions would be devoting 15-20 percent of the projected 2012 salary cap to one player, which will make it extremely hard for the Lions to spend elsewhere. That’s why, as Tim Twentyman writes at the Lions’ official website, most of the front office’s focus over the next week will be on getting a new deal done with Johnson. The Lions would absolutely love to work out a long-term extension with Johnson before free agency starts on March 13, and to structure the contract so that most of the cap hit comes later.
The question is whether Johnson has any incentive to do that. From Johnson’s perspective, he could easily decide to simply play out the final year of his contract, pocket the $18.5 million the team owes him this year, and then hit free agency a year from now.
At that point, the Lions would either have to offer him a franchise tender of more than $25 million (120 percent of his 2012 cap number) for 2013, or let him become an unrestricted free agent. It sounds crazy to think the Lions would even consider letting Johnson get away in free agency, but that franchise tender is enormous. Just as the Texans decided this year that they simply couldn’t afford the franchise tender for the 2006 No. 1 overall pick, Mario Williams, the Lions would have a very hard time affording the franchise tender for the 2007 No. 2 overall pick, Johnson. Those high picks from the days before the current rookie wage scale are going to be very costly to keep in place with the franchise tag, and the Lions will face the same issue in the years ahead with Stafford and Suh.
So that’s why the Lions want to get a new contract for Johnson wrapped up now, and why it’s their main focus for the next week. Compared to where the franchise was before he arrived, Johnson’s contract is a good problem for the Lions to have. But it’s going to be an expensive problem to solve.