- Michael Rothstein, ESPN Staff Writer
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The Detroit Lions are on the clock and the draft won’t be starting for over three weeks.
It leaves the Lions with a somewhat tricky decision, depending what the financials are on the potential deal for the 27-year-old, who had a career season in 2014.
If the Lions choose to match his contract, they’ll be much more invested in a player who entered last season with seven career tackles and no sacks. Plus, Johnson is someone who the franchise developed well a season ago, turning him into the team’s No. 3 defensive end and a capable pass rusher who finished third on the Lions in sacks last season, with six.
Yet there’s a rub. The Lions gave Johnson an original round tender ($1.542 million) for a reason instead of the more expensive second-or-first round tenders that would have led to compensation for Detroit if another team signed him. So Detroit either thought one or two things when it came to Johnson: Either no team would try to sign him with a tender out there, or that he was not worth the larger tender amounts to the Lions. The second-round tender of $2.356 million would have been the next tier since he would not be worth the first-round tier of over $3 million as essentially a rotational end.
The reasons not to match the undisclosed Tampa contract and let him walk are somewhat easy to decipher as well.
From a financial perspective, if Tampa made a lucrative offer to Johnson, then it could be tough for the Lions to match considering they have a little over $4 million in space, need to find a veteran offensive lineman, and need money to sign their rookies.
On the field, if the Lions believe a large part of Johnson’s success came because of the attention drawn to Ndamukong Suh and Nick Fairley last season, then they could choose to move on from what could be a big investment if they predict a dip in performance.
The Lions also have to decide if they have enough on the roster right now to replace him, since the team only has six draft picks and more pressing needs on the roster than defensive end. But Johnson’s departure, depending on what the LIons think of some of the other players at defensive end, could leave another hole.
Among potential replacements, Larry Webster was a rookie who didn’t take a defensive snap last season but has the frame and speed to eventually develop into a pass rusher. Devin Taylor has shown flashes in his first two seasons but has only 29 tackles and 3.5 sacks. Phillip Hunt was signed during the offseason and has had some CFL success, but no sustained success in the NFL. If the Lions believe one or two of those players can produce at a level close to Johnson did in 2014 -- 26 tackles and six sacks -- then maybe they don’t match.
Of course, when the Lions signed Johnson a year ago, he wasn’t thriving in the NFL, either. In fact, he was on his likely last chance in the league.
Whether that chance that ended up working a season ago continues in Detroit or Tampa will be decided some time in the next five days.
619dMichael Rothstein and Pat Yasinskas