If you were the new G.M. of a team coming off a 7-9 season, which would you rather have: A 30-year-old wide receiver who’s still good but no longer great, or an extra $16 million in salary cap space over the next two years?
New Lions G.M. Bob Quinn seems to be answering that question by saying he’d rather have the cap space. Although Quinn is avoiding saying anything about the possible retirement of Calvin Johnson, that in and of itself speaks volumes: Quinn’s silence strongly suggests that he would prefer that Johnson retire so that the Lions will get the cap space, but he doesn’t want to say so publicly because he doesn’t want to alienate Lions fans who love Megatron.
If Johnson plays for the Lions this year, he’ll count $24 million against their cap this year, and if he retired after 2016 he’d count $4.9 million in dead money against their cap in 2017. If he retires now, he’ll count $12.9 million in dead money against their cap in 2016, and then he’ll be off their books for good.
Not everyone seems to grasp that. Former Lions receiver Nate Burleson, a close friend of Johnson’s who is now an NFL Network analyst, ripped Quinn for not reaching out to Johnson and asking him to come back for the 2016 season.
“Calvin knows how we feel,” Burleson said. “I think there needs to be somebody that’s making decisions to actively tell him and actively tell him over and over and remind him why it’s important to come put a Detroit Lions jersey on.”
The problem is that the “somebody that’s making decisions” in Detroit is Quinn. And Quinn would rather get the $11.1 million in cap savings this year that would come from Johnson retiring. That’s completely understandable for a new G.M. in a new place who thinks he has a rebuilding project ahead of him.
So while Johnson is the best player to put on a Lions uniform in the 21st Century, that doesn’t mean the Lions want him in 2016. They’d rather give him a handshake, thank him for a job well done, and let him walk into retirement while they focus on building the team with younger, cheaper players.