The NFL announced last week that the 2021 salary cap will be, at the very least, $180 million, giving teams a general idea of where they need to be at financially. For the Detroit Lions, it likely means they have some work to do before free agency starts. Including the $12.8 million in cap space the Detroit Lions will be carrying over from 2020 and the cap ramifications once the Matthew Stafford trade becomes official, the Lions will have around $199 million invested in their roster.
In other words, the Lions need to find nearly $20 million in cap savings just to break even before the new league year begins on March 17. If they want to sign anyone in free agency or even their draft class—which would be highly advised—they’ll need to create significantly more room than that.
The easiest way to do that is to release some players on their roster that are occupying more cap space than they’re worth on the field. With a new coaching staff on board and a roster full of bloated contracts, Detroit is certainly going to take this route with some of their players. The question is how many?
Here are eight candidates that may get cut over the next few weeks to clear some cap room.
2021 cap hit: $12.2 million
Savings if cut: $6.2 million
Dead cap if cut: $6 million
Detroit has a young core at cornerback with Jeff Okudah and Amani Oruwariye likely assuming the starting roles in 2020. The new coaching staff has already expressed interest in those two, so that leaves Trufant as the odd man out on the outside. The $6 million in dead cap stinks and just goes to show how desperate the Lions were last year, but the $6.2 million gives the Lions much-needed cap relief.
2021 cap hit: $11 million
Savings if cut: $4.9 million ($9 million if using a June 1 designation)
Dead cap if cut: $6.1 million (if June 1: $2 million in 2021, $4 million in 2022)
Coleman is a tough cut, as the Lions don’t have a clear nickel cornerback to replace him on the roster. However, $11 million is a little rich for a player that has struggled since signing a four-year, $36-million contract back in 2019.
Defensive coordinator Aaron Glenn and defensive backs coach Aubrey Pleasant may believe they can get more out of the 27-year-old corner, but nearly $5 million in cap savings is tough to pass up.
2021 cap hit: $6.43 million
Savings if cut: $2.14 million ($5 million if use June 1 designation)
Dead cap if cut: $4.29 million (if June 1: $1.43 million in 2021, $2.86 million in 2022)
Fans may be eager to get rid of Jesse James after two extremely disappointing seasons from the tight end, but the real savings don’t come until 2022 when Detroit would clear out $4.3 million in cap room.
Still, James’ contributions through two years don’t match that $6.4 million in cap space he’s set to occupy, and Detroit could use an extra $2+ million right away. The Lions could opt to use the June 1 designation on James and save a little more by spreading out the dead cap over two seasons. However, that would keep the contract on the books until the summer and wouldn’t help them get under the cap right now.
2021 cap hit: $5.7 million
Savings if cut: $4.7 million
Dead cap if cut: $1 million
Of all the candidates, Nick Williams may be the easiest decision on the roster. There are very little cap ramifications if the Lions decide to part ways. While the veteran defensive tackle wasn’t a burden on the field last year (62.7 PFF grade), Detroit could probably use that $4.7 million in cap savings more effectively.
2021 cap hit: $5.3 million
Savings if cut: $2.3 million
Dead cap if cut: $3 million
The Lions already have a ton of cap space allotted to the quarterback position in 2021. Matthew Stafford is still taking up $19 million in cap space, while Jared Goff’s bulky contract costs Detroit $28.2 million this year.
Detroit obviously needs a second quarterback on the roster, but there are lower cost options available to serve as a backup to Goff. That man could be David Blough, who only carries an $850,000 cap hit, or it may be someone taken in the 2021 NFL Draft. Either way, given that 2021 may be a rebuilding year, spending over $5 million on a veteran backup quarterback seems wasteful.
2021 cap hit: $5.25 million
Savings if cut: $4 million
Dead cap if cut: $1.25 million
Trey Flowers aside, Danny Shelton may be the best defensive lineman the Lions currently have. But, again, the cap savings here may be just too tempting for the Lions. The Lions have a budding nose tackle in John Penisini. While that would be a significant downgrade in talent, it may be worth it to create $4 million in immediate cap space.
2021 cap hit: $4.74 million
Savings if cut: $2.56 million
Dead cap if cut: $2.19 million
Two years ago, Bob Quinn decided to give Christian Jones an extension. It was a head-scratcher at the time, and the Lions are still feeling the ramifications of that decision.
Though Detroit remains extremely thin at the linebacker position, the unit could use a complete overhaul in 2021. That likely means reaping the $2.56 million in cap relief by parting ways with Jones after three seasons in Detroit.
2021 cap hit: $3.125 million
Savings if cut: $2.875 million
Dead cap if cut: $250,000
This is a tricky one. Dahl was a full-time starter in 2019 and a solid rotational player last year. His current cap hit is reasonable, and with Detroit’s current situation, it may not make sense to create another hole to fill on the roster.
On the other hand, Dahl appeared to fall behind Oday Aboushi on the depth chart last year, and the Lions could probably find a cheaper option for depth in free agency. If Detroit views Halapoulivaati Vaitai as a guard, Dahl would be more expendable, especially if last year’s fourth-round pick Logan Stenberg can develop into a primary backup.