The decision was difficult, mostly because Ndamukong Suh was the player the Detroit Lions had built so much of their defense around for the past five seasons and into the foreseeable future.
To put a franchise tag on Suh -- a decision the Lions passed on Monday morning -- would have meant potentially tying up an obscene amount of money in the defensive tackle if a long-term deal couldn't be reached for slightly less cash. It would have meant leaving little wiggle room to improve the roster through free agency, and perhaps more cap cuts for players deemed valuable to the franchise.
And it would have come with zero guarantee the Lions would have signed him to a long-term deal anyway. So it was smart of the Lions to pass on franchising Suh, although now it puts a lot more pressure on the team's front office to get a deal done before he hits the open market as one of the most coveted free agents since the inception of free agency in the NFL.
The Lions mismanaged themselves into this position. They restructured Suh's contract enough during the first four years of his deal that it left the franchise with a $22.4 million cap charge for his final season. So they had to understand if the franchise tag became something they would have to consider using, the cost would be the astronomical number it is (almost $26.9 million) instead of a much more reasonable number.
The restructures took what would have likely been a reasonable franchise tag for a player such as Suh -- somewhere between $10 million and $12 million -- and made the number almost impossible to deal with.
The restructures, along with long-term deals for quarterback Matthew Stafford and receiver Calvin Johnson, left the Lions with the potential for three massive contracts on the books while each player was entering or just leaving their primes. It is a financial quandary that would be difficult for any franchise to deal with.
The Lions shortened the window to get something done when they shut down negotiations with Suh prior to the season. This let J.J. Watt and Gerald McCoy essentially set the market price for Suh when he tries to become the highest-paid defensive player in the NFL, something likely to happen by the end of March, with either the Lions or another franchise. If Suh and the Lions had worked out a deal before the season, they could have set the high-end number and not had to worry about whether Suh would be around for the prime of his career.
An earlier contract could have also given more time to rework some other deals to find more room and a way to fit Suh, Johnson and Stafford under the cap and still have some money to improve the roster on the defensive line, offensive line, cornerback, running back and wide receiver. These are all areas where the Lions need to find players through the draft or free agency -- and the reason why they couldn't use the tag with the $26.9 million price tag.
It also would have made the decision to pass on emerging star defensive tackle Aaron Donald during the draft and declining Nick Fairley's fifth-year option in free agency easier to understand.
Yet the Lions did none of those things -- and continued to speak confidently about signing Suh to a long-term deal. Team president Tom Lewand and general manager Martin Mayhew have been saying this for over a year now, continually offering the same message: a deal, they believed, would get done.
Now, with the tag no longer an option, the Lions have a real deadline to reach a deal. And we'll see whether Lewand and Mayhew's confidence was justified, or a misjudgment of the entire Suh process if he walks to another team willing to pay.