At the NFL scouting combine last month, I asked Detroit Lions general manager Martin Mayhew if he could accomplish his goals in free agency without first signing quarterback Matthew Stafford to a long-term contract. It was kind of a loaded question; if Mayhew said no, he would be ceding even more leverage to Stafford and his agent.
"We've got some ways to create cap room," Mayhew said at the time, adding: "I think we should be fine heading into free agency."
It looks like we're about to find out. We're a little more than 24 hours away from the official opening of the free-agent market, and there is no evidence that the Lions are close to a deal with Stafford. As it stands, Stafford will count $20.8 million against the Lions' salary cap when the books flip Tuesday from the 2012 league year to the 2013 league year.
After re-signing two of their own pending free agents, offensive lineman Corey Hilliard and linebacker DeAndre Levy, the Lions are projected to have around $6 million in cap space, according to Dave Birkett of the Detroit Free Press. (ESPN Stats & Information last had them at $9 million, but that was before the deals for Hilliard and Levy.) Remember, NFL teams need to save cap space if they plan to issue contract tenders to restricted free agents and to sign their draft class, so in essence the Lions wouldn't have much to work with if nothing changes.
As we've noted before, no NFL team is more hampered by the previous rookie salary structure than the Lions, whose three most cap-heavy players were all top-2 picks in their respective drafts. Stafford ($20.8 million), defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh ($18.2 million) and receiver Calvin Johnson ($12.2 million) currently project to account for about 42 percent of the Lions' total cap allotment of $123 million.
At the very least, it appears that many of the Lions' 21 pending free agents will at least get to test the market, including cornerback Chris Houston, defensive end Cliff Avril, safety Louis Delmas and right tackle Gosder Cherilus.