Rookie contracts still haunt Lions

The Detroit Lions have made it two-thirds of the way through treating a rare but asphyxiating condition: They were the NFL's worst team when the rookie pay scale was most crippling to the teams with high first-round draft choices.

After finishing 3-13 in 2006, the Lions used the No. 2 overall pick in 2007 and drafted receiver Calvin Johnson. By rule, Johnson received a six-year rookie contract worth $64 million with $27.2 million guaranteed.

The Lions' 0-16 season in 2008 landed them the No. 1 overall choice in 2009, which they used on quarterback Matthew Stafford. The league's rookie pay structure forced them to give Stafford a six-year deal worth $72 million with $41.7 million guaranteed.

And after compiling a 2-14 record in 2009, the Lions were awarded the No. 2 pick in the 2010 draft -- one year before the NFL dramatically lowered the maximum value of rookie deals. Their selection, defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh, got a five-year contract worth about $60 million, including $40 million guaranteed.

In all, the Lions guaranteed that trio $108.9 million before they took their first NFL snap. Fortunately, they have emerged as three of the Lions' best and most important players. But retaining them has been a chore, to say the least.

Most noteworthy, the Lions lost the leverage and the tool of using the franchise tag on Johnson, Stafford or Suh. I won't bore you with the specifics, but in essence their rookie deals forced salary-cap numbers high enough to trigger an NFL rule that required the tag to be 120 percent of the most recent cap figure. The numbers were too high to consider for Johnson and Stafford, leaving a long-term extension as the only option, and for Suh it would mean an outlandish $25.7 million if they wanted to tag him after the 2014 season.

In the end, the Lions gave Johnson a seven-year deal worth $132 million with $60 million guaranteed to retain his services. To keep Stafford through the age of 30, the Lions this week converted his rookie contract to a new five-year deal worth $76.5 million, including $41.5 million in guarantees.

The chart shows where Stafford's guarantees rank among NFL quarterbacks with relatively new contracts. You can argue all you want about whether his ranking is commensurate with his performance, but from a financial perspective, the Lions had little choice unless they wanted to start over at the position.

Suh is next in line, as we discussed this spring. If they want to keep him, the Lions likely will need to address his contract before the 2014 season.

According to the salary database at ESPN Stats & Information, the Lions have paid $56.26 million to Johnson to this point. Stafford has received $50.5 million and Suh has been paid $39.378 million. So the Lions' (partial) bill, to date, for the unfortunate timing of their worst seasons: $146.138 million over six years for three players. And counting.