Ndamukong Suh is the most important player for the Detroit Lions. Not Calvin Johnson. Not Matthew Stafford. But Suh. As the Lions look to build on a successful 2014 season, their top priority must be to bring him back.
Detroit ranked first in the NFL for rushing yards allowed, only giving up an average of 69.3 yards per game. They ranked second in overall defense, and third in points allowed per game.
How did they achieve this dominance?
It all starts up front for the Lions. Suh leads a powerful defensive line that also features Ezekiel Ansah, Nick Fairley and Jason Jones. That is impressive, but the anchor in that line is Suh.
Fairley, also a free agent, is an important player on the defensive line, but he missed eight games this year and the Lions were able to go 6-2 over that stretch. Ansah made huge strides in his second year, but it was the ever-present Suh that conducted the line.
Per ESPN Stats & Info, the Lions gave up 2.95 yards per rush on first down with Suh on the field, but gave up 4.59 yards per rush on first down without him on the field.
According to Pro Football Focus, Suh ranked second against the run among defensive tackles and nose tackles, and ranked seventh against the pass. Offenses took him on at their own risk.
“He’s a dominant, dominant player who we benefit from having his services,” Lions head coach Jim Caldwell said. “He’s quite a player.”
While the Lions have a number of talented players up front on defense, without Suh the burden on Ansah and Fairley could expose them.
Why he’s more important than Johnson
Calvin Johnson is destined for the Hall of Fame, and could well go down as the greatest wide receiver of all time when he decides to hang up his cleats. So how has Suh become more important to the Lions than Johnson?
As great as Johnson is, talented wide receivers are typically easier to find than dominating defensive linemen like Suh. Last season saw receivers Sammy Watkins, Mike Evans, Kelvin Benjamin and Odell Beckham Jr. among others shine in their rookie seasons.
I’m not suggesting Johnson is replaceable at all. But finding a talented receiver to catch passes from Stafford would be an easier task than finding someone to dominate on the defensive line like Suh does.
Johnson missed three games in 2014; the Lions went 3-0 in those games. I’m not so convinced they would have done the same without Suh in that time.
The challenge for the Lions
Keeping Suh won’t be easy. He will demand top dollar.
The option to franchise tag Suh is available to the Lions, and this is an option general manager Martin Mayhew has said they will consider if necessary:
“I'll leave every option open in terms of dealing with him,” Mayhew said. “We want him back. We are willing to franchise him, transition him, whatever.”
There is one issue with slapping the franchise tag on him. Regardless of whether Suh is with the Lions or not in 2015, he will account for $9.7 million against their cap in dead money. Franchising Suh will mean having to pay him $26.9 million, meaning that he would account for $36.6 million against the cap, which is roughly 25% of next year’s cap. Add in the big contracts to Stafford and Johnson, and the Lions will have roughly 50% of their cap left to pay the remaining 50 players.
The Lions will be hoping to sign Suh to a lucrative, long-term deal in addition to restructuring contracts of other players on the pay roll.
By signing Suh, fellow defensive tackles set to hit free agency, Nick Fairley and C.J. Mosley would almost definitely be moving out of Detroit.
It is important that, somehow, the Lions resign Suh. Suh is the most important player on this team. Although highly improbable, if a scenario occurred where they had to sacrifice Calvin Johnson to keep Suh in Detroit, I think they would have to take it.
Yes, they will most likely lose Fairley and Mosley in the process, but Suh is so talented he lifts the players’ performances all around him. Replenishing these positions with good draft picks and bargain free agents could be what it takes to maintain this dominant Detroit defense as we head into the 2015 season.