ALLEN PARK, Mich. -- When the Detroit Lions halted contract talks with Ndamukong Suh prior to the start of training camp this season, it became the latest in a line of risky chances in their attempt to retain the All-Pro defensive tackle.
Through 13 games this season, Suh has shown exactly why it is so dangerous for Detroit to let him reach free agency. He is too valuable to the Lions -- the most critical player on the league's second-ranked defense -- and they can't let him walk away to another team.
Everything that happens with the Lions' defense starts with the 6-foot-4, 305-pound Suh in the middle of the defensive line. The pressure the Lions put on opposing quarterbacks? It doesn’t happen without Suh consistently taking on double- and triple-teams. The Lions’ run defense, rated tops in the NFL? It starts with Suh drawing all that attention.
Suh, the No. 2 pick in 2010, is playing better than ever. It's why not securing him to a new deal was such a risk, although it's possible he may not have wanted to get a deal done then since free agency can be tantalizing.
As much as he was worth to Detroit before the season, he may end up being more valuable now.
“Suh was a force,” Lions coach Jim Caldwell said after Detroit beat Tampa Bay 34-17.
That quote could come from almost any Lions game this season. Suh has been a dominant presence on the interior of Detroit’s defense, playing 81 percent of the Lions' snaps, according to Pro Football Focus -- and if there’s one reason the Lions should pay him at the same level as J.J. Watt and Gerald McCoy to ensure his presence in Detroit for the next four to six years, it is that.
If the Lions can’t re-sign Suh, at this point it is worth considering using the franchise tag, even if it costs the Lions over $26 million in 2015 to do so. To this Detroit defense, he is worth investing that type of cash.
Yes, either one of these options could cause some salary-cap issues for the Lions in the immediate future, but the likely escalation of the cap could make Suh more affordable given his relative worth to the Lions.
“He’s the player he is for a reason,” linebacker DeAndre Levy said. “Guys are keyed in on him, and I like playing behind him. Obviously. There’s been times this year where guys will stay on him a little bit longer on the blocks and I’m able to run through, and times they come up on me faster and he has a one-on-one block and he wins it.
“The whole front line, they’ve been doing it all year. He’s just on another level.”
Suh might not have overly dominant stats (5.5 sacks and 38 tackles), but his value comes in what he does for his teammates.
“When you have Suh, it makes it so hard on an offense,” defensive end George Johnson said. “A lot of teams plan for Suh. They want to stop him. They want to slow him down, but at the same time, you have four other good defenders out there on that defensive line who are going to get pressure.”
This creates larger lanes for Levy and Tahir Whitehead to burst through. This helps with rushing passers -- the Lions had 14 quarterback hits Sunday.
This is something Johnson didn’t appreciate until he started playing with Suh this season.
“When somebody is so dominant like that and people just want to stop him, it makes it so much easier for us,” Johnson said. “It frees us up. It’s like once we start getting going, they start taking their focus off of Suh and stopping everybody else, but that’s when Suh gets going.”
On the field, Suh has been going all season, and that's why the Lions have to keep him from going once it is over.