Digging deeper into Calvin Johnson's future

As we discussed Saturday night -- or was it early Sunday morning? -- the Detroit Lions deserve to get big-boy treatment and analysis moving forward. First up: what appears to be a sizable conundrum on the financial future of All-Pro wide receiver Calvin Johnson.

We noted earlier Monday that Johnson finished the season in historic fashion and might be in line for the most lucrative contract extension for a receiver in NFL history. After doing some digging Monday, it appears the NFL's salary-cap rules will leave the Lions with several options -- all of which would require mind-boggling numbers and difficult decisions.

The bottom line: The Lions could be forced to pay Johnson $77 million over the next three seasons alone. That number would cripple the cap structure of many teams, let alone one with as many high draft choices as the Lions have. Here's why and how that would happen:

Johnson's salary cap number is projected to be around $22 million in 2012, thanks to a $14 million base salary, a $4.5 million roster bonus and a debit for the $4.5 million performance bonus he earned in 2011. (I know those numbers don't add up. The debit is part of a bigger cap reconciliation process that hasn't happened yet.)

Obviously, the Lions would like to lower that cap number and could do so with a long-term extension that would spread out the hit over multiple years. But that's where Johnson's unique situation gets tricky. It would be a rare occasion where the NFL's franchise tag rules would work in favor, rather than against, the player.

As you know, the alternative to a long-term contract for a star player is to work under a series of yearly franchise tags. In most cases, the team has the advantage because it doesn't have to guarantee money beyond the current season. But in Johnson's case, it would require monstrous single-season salaries that would actually make the Lions' cap situation worse.

Under the NFL's new collective bargaining agreement (CBA), the franchise tag figure for a player is determined by the higher of the following two values:

  1. The average of the five highest salary cap figures at the player's position over the past five years

  2. A figure equal to 120 percent of his prior year's cap number.

Johnson's $22 million cap figure for 2012 is much higher than the projected franchise tag number for receivers. So the alternative to signing Johnson to a long-term deal would be letting him play out the final year of his current contract in 2012 and then franchising him at $26.4 million in 2013. Without a deal at that point, Johnson's franchise tag would rise to $31.7 million for 2014 and would account for perhaps 25 percent of the Lions' total cap structure.

That nuance shifts extraordinary leverage to Johnson in any negotiations that might occur over the next few months. If he does absolutely nothing, the Lions would be required to pay him about $77 million -- and substantially limit their cap flexibility -- to keep him on their roster for the next three seasons.

Often, the average of a series of franchise tags provides a rough starting point for negotiations on long-term deals for star players. The three-year average of $25.6 million in Johnson's case is monstrous. Johnson would have to make a concession for getting more money guaranteed up front than he would in the franchise scenario, but keep in mind that the highest average salary for an NFL receiver is currently about 45 percent lower than that: $15 million for Larry Fitzgerald of the Arizona Cardinals, who signed an eight-year deal last summer that included $50 million in guarantees.

What does all of this mean? No matter which way they turn, the Lions will be on the hook for a ceiling-crushing commitment to Johnson. Unless he makes a cash concession to lessen the cap hit, the Lions are in a really, really tough spot.