MIKE O'HARA

Restructured contracts and transactions have saved the Detroit Lions approximately $27 million

Posted Mar 18, 2013

Despite being up against the cap heading into the 2013 league year, top players restructuring contracts as well as player transactions have saved the Lions enough money to sign token free agents

Ndamukong Suh

PHOENIX – NFL teams may be strapped for cash while operating under a snug salary cap, but the Detroit Lions can boast that the single biggest number they have on their ledge for one player following the first week of free agency is what they shaved off the cap ... not what they spent.

It is a sign of the negotiating times.

Defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh restructured his contract last week to give the Lions a cap savings of $7.68 million for 2013. Suh doesn't lose any money. He simply converted his base salary in 2013 to a signing bonus that will be spread over the last two years of his contract – this year and 2014.

Suh wasn't the only Lion who restructured his contract, but his deal gave the Lions the most room.

Salary-cap considerations are a big part of free agency, and the Lions worked deals on many fronts to clear cap space and to shore up their roster in key areas while losing as few players as possible.

On one hand, it meant not re-signing defensive end Cliff Avril, who ultimately signed a discounted deal with the Seattle Seahawks.

On the other, the Lions filled some big holes in free agency by getting cap relief from Suh, Calvin Johnson and others. And they also have more negotiating work to do with quarterback Matthew Stafford, who has restructured his contract the previous two years to give some salary-cap relief.

General Manger Martin Mayhew isn't worried about the status of Stafford's contract, which has two years to run.

"No, not at all," Mayhew said Monday at the NFL meetings. "I talked to (writers) before about that being a process. As I said before, the contracts with the good players are more difficult to do. For the players that aren't good, you just tell them what you plan on paying them. That's the way it goes.

"I'm not at all disappointed. It's going to be a process to get that done. We're working on getting that done now. We've been very deliberated in the process. We haven't been pressuring him. He by no means is putting the brakes on. It's just the negotiating process, and this negotiating process is back and forth."

Avril's contract seems to shrink by the day as reports come out on the two-year contract he signed. It initially was reported as being worth $15 million, but the full value is $13 million, as reported Tuesday by ESPN's Mike Sando.

Avril got a signing bonus of $4.5 million and base salaries of $1.5 million in 2013 and $7 million in 2014. The cap charge for 2013 is only $3.75 million – about a third of the $10.6 million he made last year as the Lions' franchise player.

The Lions never seemed to make a big play to meet Avril's asking price.

"There are a lot of moving pieces in free agency," Mayhew said. "We started down the road with some guys. We were in those talks. You start bringing a guy back, bring Cliff back. It probably would have cost us two players to bring him back.

"We just thought we were better served to sign the guys we were talking to."

Ultimately, money talks, and the Lions' power of persuasion with free agents came from restructuring some contracts, reducing others, and releasing some players. Ultimately, the Lions netted an estimated $27 million savings under the cap.

To show how much free agent salaries were relatively depressed this year, the four players signed by the Lions last Wednesday will count barely more than $8 million against the 2013 cap of $123 million. The players and their reported cap numbers: cornerback Chris Houston, re-signed, $2.3 million; Reggie Bush, $2 million; Glover Quin, $2.25 million; Jason Jones, $1.83 million.

The total: $8.43 million, or only about $750,000 more than cap savings from Suh's restructuring.

Previously, Nate Burleson and Dominic Raiola took substantial pay cuts. Burleson's base salary dropped from $4.5 million to $2 million. Raiola went from $4.05 million to $940,000, the minimum for a player with 10 or more seasons of service.

Also this week, it was reported that wide receiver Calvin Johnson tweaked his contract by converting his $5 million base salary to signing bonus, thus dropping his base salary to $715,000, the minimum for a player with six seasons of service.

Johnson still gets his $5 million, but by spreading out the remaining $4.285 million in a signing bonus, the Lions had a cap savings of $3.57 million.

Those weren't the only deals that carved out cap space. The Lions also released guard Stephen Peterman, wide receiver Titus Young and defensive end Kyle Vanden Bosch, and offensive tackle Jeff Backus retired. Those four roster moves added more than $11 million to the cap.

Total savings from cuts and restructurings: more than $27 million.