How will the Lions pay for their version of the Big 3 — Megatron, Suh, and Stafford?

Lions WR Calvin Johnson throws out the first pitch at a Tigers game/AP

From 2007 to 2010, the Lions picked their version of the Big 3. After years and years of terrible drafting, Detroit grabbed WR Calvin Johnson second overall in 2007, QB Matthew Stafford first overall in 2009, and DT Ndamukong Suh second overall in 2010. That’s not bad. Three cornerstones.

And each were in the era of massive, massive rookie deals. Slowly, that trio will look to get paid. And considering their production, all will deserve it. Megatron was first, and he’s slated to earn about $130 million over the next eight years. Figure Stafford is next, and then Suh. It’s a hefty task for the Lions in a salary cap era, though some would say a good problem.

And so, after I spoke with Lions President Tom Lewand on topics that ended up in this article, I asked Lewand about this issue. Colleague Albert Breer had broached it in March with this look, but I wondered if anything had changed. Did the team have any more answers or a new outlook?

Lewand sounded like he doesn’t see it as a big deal. And after he spoke, I ended up believing him. So, how will the Lions pay these stars?

Same way all the other 31 clubs do it,” Lewand told me. “I think that the situation gets a little bit more attention because they’re high draft choices that were within four years of each other that were in those hig-priced rookie contracts. If you were to take those same three guys and those were their second contracts, and they had proved themselves in the league, we wouldn’t be having this conversation.

Lewand’s point is that every team faces these issues with their star players. He offered the Saints’ battle to sign QB Drew Brees and Marques Colston as an example, but there are others. The dynamics don’t change just because the team has already paid these guys massive salaries once. Johnson got $64 million over six years ($27M guaranteed) as a rookie, Stafford got $41.7M guaranteed over six years with a maximum of $72M, while Suh got $68M over five years ($40M guaranteed). That’s a ton.

Yet, as Lewand says, “the dynamics don’t change” compared to other teams who have stars who weren’t all high picks. It’s just, with old rookie deals that are backloaded, not re-doing deals can mess with a team’s finances. It really benefits players who live up to their contracts. These guys have.

The underlying issue is, are they good players who deserve a lot of money?” Lewand asked me. “And if so, how do you fit those guys under the cap and keep your foundation together? Same problem that teams with a nucleus of good players are going to have around the league. I think the one you used to cover (the Patriots) is a great example of that. Where they let guys go, you know? Because they got a nucleus that they pay and then they don’t pay other guys. So, whether that’s Matthew Stafford and Calvin Johnson and Ndamukong Suh or whether it’s Tom Brady and… maybe not Wes Welker… it’s the same type of issue. Where do you allocate your cap resources in the nucleus of your team? And at what point do you have to make some tougher decisions?

The system doesn’t allow endless spending. It forces tough decisions. Lewand sounds like he has already made them with his Big 3. So, the trickle down effect could alter things for guys on the periphery.

I think obviously Calvin, the decision we made there was a pretty easy one,” Lewand said. “This is a guy who can be a cornerstone of your franchise for a long (time). I think Matthew’s shown that he’s got the potential to be that and so has Ndamukong. So if those guys are the cornerstone, they’re part of that nucleus of your franchise? Then you find a way to invest in your nucleus. Then you have to keep building around those and when you’re building around them, those pieces change up over time.

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