As NFL’s 2021 salary cap comes into focus, Lions have plenty of work to do

Detroit News

Justin Rogers | The Detroit News

In recent days, there has been progress made toward clarifying the NFL’s salary-cap situation for the 2021 season. As expected, it’s going to decline sharply, but not as much as originally feared.

On Thursday, the league sent out of a memo to all 32 teams informing them the still-unsettled cap’s floor would be $180 million next season. That’s a $5-million increase from the previously projected floor, but still potentially a nearly 10% decline from last year’s $198.2-million cap.

The decrease comes after the league suffered steep revenue loses related to the COVID-19 pandemic, which significantly restricted attendance across the league in 2020.

On the plus side for the Detroit Lions, the team is carrying over $12.8 million in unused cap space from last season, a parting gift from former general manager Bob Quinn. That should help soften the blow from the overall reduction.

Still, the team has significant work to do this offseason. As it currently stands, the Lions are going to need to shed or shift current cap obligations if they want to be active in free-agency when it opens next month. The franchise is currently not in position to contend for top free agents, including a pair of their own in wide receiver Kenny Golladay and defensive end Romeo Okwara.

Detroit’s recent decision to trade quarterback Matthew Stafford certainty didn’t help matters. While the long-term benefits of the move are clear, given the former of a pair of future first-round picks coming back from the Los Angeles Rams, absorbing Jared Goff’s contract as part of the impending transaction comes with significant cap ramifications.

Stafford was set to have a $33-million cap hit in 2021. Trading him cleared $14 million off the books, but Goff adds nearly $28 million to Detroit’s cap.

With Goff’s cap hit, in addition to the dead money remaining on Stafford’s deal, the Lions are projected to have more than $199 million in cap obligations at the start of the league year (March 17). Assuming the cap isn’t significantly above the aforementioned $180-million floor, that puts the franchise over budget and out of compliance with league rules, which requires teams to be under the cap at that time.

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Even if the franchise intended to add no pieces in free-agency, which is unlikely, they’d need to clear up to $6 million in space by the middle of next month. The easiest way to do this would be restructuring Goff’s deal.

The way this is done is Goff’s base salary would be converted into a bonus and, for cap purposes, that bonus would be spread evenly over the remaining four years of his contract.

Goff’s base salary for 2021 is $25.3 million. For easy illustration, let’s say the Lions opted to converted $20 million of that amount to a bonus, which would spread it out as a $5 million cap hit each of the next four seasons, lowering the quarterback’s 2021 hit $15 million.

The downside, depending on how you view Goff’s long-term potential as Detroit’s starter, is it likely ties the two sides together through the 2022 season, at the very least.

The only other candidate for a significant contract restructure is defensive end Trey Flowers, who has a $14.4-million base salary in 2021. But again, restructuring a contract also carries future implications and it’s still unclear how the new regime feels about Flowers, who despite being in his physical prime and a continued schematic fit, was brought in as a featured piece by the former front office and coaching staff.

More: After breakout season, Lions looking for even more out of T.J. Hockenson in 2021

As for veterans the Lions could cut to clear space, here’s a list and how much their release would save against the cap:

►Cornerback Desmond Trufant — $6.2 million

►Cornerback Justin Coleman — $4.9 million

►Defensive tackle Nick Williams — $4.7 million

►Defensive tackle Danny Shelton  — $4 million

►Offensive lineman Joe Dahl $2.8 millions

►Linebacker Christian Jones — $2.6 million

►Quarterback Chase Daniel — $2.3 million

►Tight end Jesse James — $2.1 million

Additionally, it’s worth noting, this cap projection is reflective of offseason rules, when only the team’s top 51 contracts count in the calculation. At the start of the regular season, all 53 contracts, as well as any practice squad and injured reserve roster spots will also be tabulated. The Lions must also create space for their incoming draft class, including the No. 7 pick, which carried a first-year cap hit north of $4 million a year ago.

New general manager Brad Holmes and senior vice president of football and business administration Mike Disner have their work cut out for them. As teams around the league have begun making roster adjustments in the form of cuts and contract restructures, expect the Lions to follow suit in the coming days and weeks.

Twitter: @Justin_Rogers

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