Sign of the times: Lions get creative with Collins’ contract restructure

Detroit News

Justin Rogers | The Detroit News

Prior to the pandemic, the NFL’s salary cap was on an unending escalator with no ceiling in sight. But things have temporally shifted after COVID-19 limited in-person attendance around the league in 2020, resulting in a significant revenue decline and a decrease of the cap by nearly 8% for the upcoming season.

That’s forcing teams to employ some creative accounting to manage rosters built around the idea the cap would continue to rise. The Detroit Lions are one of several teams utilizing automatically voidable years to lessen cap obligations for 2021.

Recently, the team restructured the contract of veteran linebacker Jamie Collins, a common and easy way to create space. With a traditional restructure, a portion of a player’s base salary is converted to an immediately payable bonus. For cap purposes, that bonus is spread evenly across the remaining years of the contract.

But in Collins’ case, he has only two years remaining on his deal and the Lions wanted to create additional space. To do so, they added three automatically voidable years to the end of the deal, allowing the hit to be spread through 2025.

The specifics: Collins previously had an $8.3 million base salary for 2021. The Lions lowered that to $3.3 million, paying him the $5 million difference as a bonus. Had they done nothing else, that $5 million would have been split evenly across the  remaining two years of his contract, lowering his hit this season by $2.5 million (half of the $5 million).

But because the Lions added the three voidable years, that $5 million will now be spread over five seasons, $1 million across each year. With only $1 million counting against the cap this year, his cap hit is lowered $4 million.

The consequences of this strategy is it pushes dead money — a cap hit regardless of whether the player is on the roster — into the future. Before the restructure, Collins’ deal had $2.3 million in dead money in 2022. Now, the Lions are additionally responsible for that remaining $4 million from the restructure, $6.3 million in total.

The thing about dead money is it is typically counted against the cap as soon as the player is traded or released. So, though the Lions added three voidable years to Collins’ contract, that won’t matter if the Lions part with Collins after this season. They’ll eat the $6.3 million cap hit in 2022 and he’ll come off the books the following year, when the team’s rebuild is presumably ready to round the corner.

And the restructure doesn’t really change Collins’ long-term outlook with the Lions. His cap hit next season is scheduled to be $13.3 million, so even with the lofty dead money figure, the team would stand to clear $7 million in cap space by moving on next offseason.

As noted, voidable years as a cap management tool aren’t unique. You can even find examples on Detroit’s current roster, such as tight end Jesse James, who signed a four-year deal in 2019 that included an automatically voidable year at the end of the contract.

But adding multiple voidable years is more unusual and is a sign of the times. Just this week, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers used the tactic, signing linebacker Lavonte David to an extension, similarly adding three voidable years to lessen the 2021 cap hit and keep the core of their Super Bowl roster intact.

Twitter: @Justin_Rogers

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