Allen Park — With NFL free agency upon us, we must answer the annual question: How much do the Detroit Lions have to spend?
A friendly warning to readers: If you’re interested in the full details, buckle up for some math-heavy reading. But if you simply prefer the conclusion, the final four paragraphs should have you covered.
Let’s start with the obvious. The NFL’s salary cap for the 2022 season has been set at $208.2 million, a $25.7 million (and 14.1%) increase from a year ago. That’s a massive jump, but we must remember it had decreased the first time in more than a decade in 2021 as part of the financial ramifications of the COVID-19 pandemic. A better barometer of the league’s financial health is the new cap marks a $10 million increase from 2020.
On top of that base figure, the Lions are carrying over $1.1 million in unused cap space from last season and will benefit from another $8.4 million in contract adjustments, giving them a total of $217.7 million on cap as a starting point.
Obviously, most of that space is committed to players already on the roster. Entering free agency, the Lions have more than 60 players under contract or have extended a contract tender, which creates a cap hold. But during the offseason, only the top-51 contracts count toward the cap calculation. Excluding Trey Flowers from the equation, since we know the edge defender is scheduled to be released in the coming days, but including the recently revealed figures from receiver Josh Reynold’s two-year extension, we know the Lions have used $161.9 million in cap space.
Additionally, following Flowers’ release, the team will have $21 million in dead money. That’s cap commitments to players no longer on the roster, typically tied to signing/restructure bonuses. Flowers and linebacker Jamie Collins, who was released early last season, account for the majority of that dead money.
That leaves $34.8 million in cap space, but doesn’t account for the team’s incoming draft class. If we use Over The Cap’s estimates for Detroit’s first five draft picks (which includes a projected comp pick for losing Kenny Golladay in free agency last offseason), we can estimate the Lions will enter the market with a little more than $24 million.
Adjusting to account for a rainy day fund of $7-8 million — for when the cap calculation accounts for every player on the roster at the start of the regular season, including those on injured reserve and on the 16-man practice squad, plus the replacements for those injured players — the Lions realistically have $16-17 million to work with this week.
Of course, if needed, there are avenues to create additional cap space. Most notably, the Lions could restructure offensive tackle Taylor Decker’s contract, spreading $13 million of his 2022 salary across the next four years to clear approximately $10 million this year. That conversation boils down to whether the Lions would rather have more to spend now or in the future, when they’re conceivably in better position to contend for division titles and postseason berths.
But even with $16 million, the team could do quite a bit of damage. That’s because the first-year cap hit of a multi-year contract is typically significantly smaller than the later seasons. For example, let’s say the Lions wanted to sign New Orleans Saints safety Marcus Williams to a four-year, $60 million contract, which is on par with a deal Justin Simmons signed with the Broncos a year ago. Well, Simmons’ first-year cap hit was $5.75 million. And when you factor in any addition dropping another contract off the bottom of the top-51 cap calculation, that hypothetical addition would eat up just under $5 million of the remaining space.
So yes, there’s room for the Lions to be aggressive, and even pursue a top-of-the-market name while working through the team’s offseason shopping list. Free agency officially opens at 4 p.m. Wednesday.