Detroit Lions: An Early Look at the 2016 Salary Cap Situation


Early league projections have been set for the 2016 NFL salary cap, which will give the Detroit Lions plenty of room to operate in free agency.

The Detroit Lions have been strapped for salary cap space for quite some time but there is relief in sight.

With over $19 million in dead money on the salary cap that disappears when the new league year begins, the Lions were always going to have some cap space to play with. But yesterday’s report about the early 2016 salary cap projection starts to bring into focus just how much room under the salary cap the Lions can expect when free agency begins.

According to NFL Network’s Albert Breer, the league provided club officials with a projected 2016 salary cap of between $147 million and $153 million.

That is a modest increase over the $143.28 million salary cap set for the 2015 season but these early projections are notoriously conservative. Consider last season when the league projection stood at $138.6 million to $141.8 million at this time of year followed by a report from Adam Schefter last February that pinned the 2015 cap at $140 million to $143 million.

With history as our guide, we should feel comfortable with the top end of the league’s current 2016 projection to take an early look at the Lions’ 2016 salary cap situation. The NFL allows for unused cap space to be carried over from year to year but the Lions have only about $1 million in cap space left this season so we’ll consider that negligible and work only with the base salary cap projection of $153 million.

Current Contracts
Contracts currently on the books, plus Riley Reiff‘s fifth-year option, have the Lions on the hook for about $129 million in 2016 cap commitments. About $360,000 in dead money on next year’s cap (mostly from Kellen Moore and Larry Webster) has to be counted.

2016 Draft Class
The Lions’ rookie pool won’t be locked in place until the full draft order, including compensatory picks, is locked in place. Even then it will change with trades made during the draft, but a current projection on projects $7.4 million for the Lions’ draft class based on their current draft picks and the expectation they will net two compensatory picks – a third-round pick for losing Ndamukong Suh and a fifth-round pick for losing Nick Fairley.

What it Means for Free Agency
Much has been made about the rising cap hits for Matthew Stafford and Calvin Johnson in 2016 but even with those situations left unaddressed, the Lions project to have more than $16 million in salary cap space to work with in free agency. ($153 million cap – $129 million in current contracts – $360,000 dead money – $7.5 million rookie pool)

That assumes a rookie pool is earmarked and left alone, which doesn’t happen since rookie deals don’t need to be accounted for until well after free agency begins, and other roster changes that impact the salary cap. For instance, the Lions very well may approach Calvin Johnson about a restructured deal that lowers their overall financial commitment but offers Johnson additional guarantees, much like the Arizona Cardinals did last offseason with Larry Fitzgerald.

And not all the contract currently on the books will play out as scheduled. A few weeks after the shake up in the front office, I wrote a post detailing four players who are under contract for next season who very well may not return next season. Releasing those four players would net a cap savings of more than $12.5 million.

While the default, do nothing approach leaves the Lions with about $16 million in cap room next offseason, they could be working with something in excess of $30 million when free agency hits.