Lions: The cost of high draft position

January, 14, 2012
1/14/12
8:00
AM ET
This week's look at the Detroit Lions' contract predicament with receiver Calvin Johnson brought a number of questions to the NFC North blog inbox. Many of you wanted to know how it came to be that the Lions' best player will count a whopping $22 million against their 2012 salary cap, the start of a cap headache that could increase by increments of 120 percent

There really aren't any obvious targets for blame. In reality, the Lions are entering into a unique period where they must absorb the cumulative weight of their annual high position in the draft before the NFL created a new rookie wage scale last summer.

Between 2007 and 2010, the Lions drafted No. 1 overall once and twice were at No. 2. The combined 2012 cap numbers of those three players are going to be nearly $52 million, based on numbers I saw that were updated at midseason. If nothing has changed since then, that means Johnson, quarterback Matthew Stafford and defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh are set to account for more than 40 percent of the Lions' total cap structure in 2012. The commitment increases to nearly $60 million when you count the contract of defensive end Kyle Vanden Bosch, a high-profile free agent signed in 2010.

Here's the breakdown based on what I know:

Calvin Johnson
Projected 2012 cap number:
$22 million
Comment: The Lions would like to bring that number down with an offseason contract extension, but as we discussed Monday, they're going to have a tough time avoiding a huge cash outlay that would still leave him with a relatively high cap number.

Matthew Stafford
Projected 2012 cap number:
$17.1 million
Comment: Stafford renegotiated his deal last summer to create room under the 2011 cap. According to Dave Birkett of the Detroit Free Press, he earned a $1 million performance bonus in 2011 that added to his 2012 cap total.

Ndamukong Suh
Projected 2012 cap cumber:
$12.7 million
Comment: Suh's five-year, $68 million contract came in the last year of the old rookie cap structure.

Kyle Vanden Bosch
Projected 2012 cap number:
$7.7 million
Comment: Like Stafford, Vanden Bosch renegotiated last summer to create more room for 2011.

The NFL goes through a process of reconciling bonuses and other figures to determine the total cap number of a team's roster as free agency approaches in March. I don't yet have the projection, so we're missing an important piece of the puzzle: How close the Lions are to the NFL's projected $120 million cap limit for 2012.

But generally speaking, when four players account for perhaps half ($60 million) of your total cap figure ($120 million), you're going to have to work hard to squeeze in the other 47. (Only the highest 51 players on a roster count toward the cap.) That's the challenge the Lions will face in trying to re-sign defensive end Cliff Avril, linebacker Stephen Tulloch, cornerback Eric Wright and others.

Again, I really don't think the Lions did anything wrong here. They paid Johnson, Stafford and Suh pretty much what they had to under the old system. Vanden Bosch's deal was market value for an established pass rusher. And make no mistake: Their acquisitions were a big part of why the Lions won 10 games and made the playoffs in 2011.

Now comes the next step. We'll see how it plays out.

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