Colts Should Just Say No to Ndamukong Suh


Coming off an embarrassing 45-7 loss to the New England Patriots in the AFC Championship game, the Indianapolis Colts have a number of holes to address through either the NFL Draft or free agency this offseason. One popular free agent suggestion has been none other than the Detroit Lions dominant defensive tackle in Ndamukong Suh. Because it would cost the Detroit Lions an absurd $26.7MM in cap space to apply a 2015 franchise tag on Suh, he’s set to become a highly sought after free agent.

Dec 14, 2014; Detroit, MI, USA; Detroit Lions defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh (90) runs onto the field before the game against the Minnesota Vikings at Ford Field. Mandatory Credit: Raj Mehta-USA TODAY Sports

There’s no question that Suh is currently one of the most dominating defensive players in the NFL. For a Colts’ team that according to their owner Jim Irsay needs to “get tougher“, Suh is not only tough, but mean with a little nastiness in between. 

As a 5th-year veteran, Suh was the heart and soul of the league’s best run defense this past season, as opponents only rushed for 69.3 total rush yards per game, largely because of his efforts. Quite frankly, he’s been a dominant force in the interior of the Lions’ defensive line since he arrived as the 2nd overall pick of the 2010 NFL Draft out of Nebraska, even if his “extracurricular activities” between the whistle have drawn the ire of both the league office and opposing players.

This past season, Suh had 53 tackles and 8.5 sacks in 16 starts. As a testament to his dominance, his +27.5 overall grade per ProFootballFocus (subscription) graded him as the 3rd best defensive tackle overall. Specifically for the Colts, after suffering from yet another postseason pounding from Patriots powerback LeGarrette Blount, his +18.1 grade in run defense would serve quite well, as it was the 2nd best among all defensive tackles.

At age 27 and as a 4x 1st-Team All-Pro, Suh has shown no signs of slowing down and is in the prime of his football career with presumably many great seasons still ahead of him. He’d be a true difference maker in the middle of the Colts defense and an incredibly disruptive force. To be blunt, or more importantly to beat Blount, Suh’s arguably the most dominant defensive player in the NFL, not named J.J. Watt.

Problem is, Suh is expected to be paid more than Watt this offseason.

January 26, 2014; Honolulu, HI, USA; Team Sanders defensive end J.J. Watt of the Houston Texans (99) and defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh of the Detroit Lions (90) talk during the third quarter of the 2014 Pro Bowl against Team Rice at Aloha Stadium. Team Rice defeated Team Sanders 22-21. Mandatory Credit: Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

After signing a contract in September of this past year that made Watt the highest paid defensive player on a 6-year, $100MM contract (including $51.86MM guaranteed), Suh is projected to surpass that mark.  He’s not only expected to exceed Watt’s $100MM threshold, but also the $103MM bar recently raised by fellow defensive tackle Gerald McCoy.

To put that in perspective, that’s an anticipated cap hit of $13.2-15MM annually based on both Watt and McCoy’s recent mega-contracts. That’s right around the 2015 cap hit of Tom Brady at $14MM. Issue is, Suh isn’t touching the football for roughly half of the game, but is set to be paid as much as an elite NFL quarterback.

Can the Colts afford to pay “two”?

Jan 18, 2015; Foxborough, MA, USA; Indianapolis Colts quarterback Andrew Luck (12) drops back to pass against the New England Patriots in the AFC Championship Game at Gillette Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Greg M. Cooper-USA TODAY Sports

With Colts quarterback Andrew Luck‘s mega-contract looming, the team may have a lot of cap space this offseason in theory, but they may not really have it in all actuality. Not unless they’re signing players to short-term contracts of course. The team has to plan their salary cap situation accordingly, for his new contract could pay Luck as much as $25MM annually and make him effectively the highest paid player in NFL history, starting in 2017 (if not before then if a new agreement can be reached).

For comparison’s sake, the NFL’s currently highest paid quarterback in Aaron Rodgers is set to have a $20.3MM cap hit in 2017, and Luck will likely far exceed that number annually throughout the life of his new contract.

The NFL’s projected salary cap for 2015 is $138.6MM, that’s a 4.21% increase from 2014, which was $133MM. Using that same 4.21% percentage increase as a salary cap projection for 2017, that equates to a projected $150.5MM salary cap for 2017, the year that Luck will impose a monster hit on the Colts’ salary cap situation no matter what. Combining both Suh’s roughly projected $14.1MM cap hit and Luck’s at least $20.3MM cap hit from the bar previously set by Rodgers, and that’s $35MM or nearly 25% of the Colts $150.5MM projected cap tied up in two players.

That number doesn’t include projected 2017 cap hits of the team’s other young core: Vontae Davis‘ $10.25MM, *T.Y. Hilton $11.55MM (based on Jordy’s Nelson‘s recent contract), *Anthony Castonzo $9MM (based on Eugene Monroe‘s recent contract), *Dwayne Allen $7.3MM (based on Vernon Davis contract), *Coby Fleener $7.8MM (based on Greg Olsen‘s contract), and Pat McAfee $2.9MM; which totals $48.8MM. [Disclaimer: These aren’t perfect comparisons by any means, but are mainly ball-park comparables for projection purposes]

DETROIT, MI – DECEMBER 02: Andrew Luck #12 of the Indianapolis Colts scrambles out of the reach of Ndamukong Suh #90 of the Detroit Lions at Ford Field on December 2, 2012 in Detroit, Michigan. (Photo by Dave Reginek/Getty Images)

Combining that $35MM (Luck and Suh) with the rest of the Colts young core of a projected $48.8MM, and that’s $83.8MM or 56% of the Colts projected 2017 salary cap of $150.5MM. The only issue is, that even with some expected improvement from some of the young core, and it’s essentially the same group that just got blasted 45-7 by the Patriots with the exception of Suh. Is the remaining $66.6MM enough to surround strictly that aforementioned young core with a better lineup on both sides of the football, as well as field an entire 53-man active roster?

Nearly 25% of the Colts projected cap space would be tied up in two players.

[Keep in mind that the team would still need to save $15-20MM to sign at least their 3 next draft classes, which would earn an at least an estimated $5MM per draft class

Consequently, that number is more like $50MM of cap space to work with to fill out the rest of their offensive and defensive starting lineups and the remaining roster. It seems like a bit of a daunting task with little to no margin for error on bad signings.]

It’s worth noting that Colts owner Jim Irsay has proclaimed his desire to get away from “Star Wars” under the Peyton Manning Era of Colts football and field better overall teams. Ones that are not necessarily purely driven by their star players, but ultimately win more championships.

No one’s discounting that Suh is a tremendous defensive player; however, he alone cannot solve all of the Colts problems, and there’s still multiple holes to address even with his addition and the resulting diminished salary cap space. Plus, as a 4-3 defensive tackle with the Lions, it raises the issue of whether he’s even as good of a fit as a 3-4 defensive lineman at either defensive end or nose tackle for the Colts.

There’s a reason after all that Suh may become a free agent in the first place. It’s not because the Detroit Lions don’t want Suh back, it’s because with a high priced quarterback in Matthew Stafford and a superstar wideout in Calvin Johnson already on payroll, they may not be able to afford him and still field quality overall lineups. With the Colts having an assumed higher paid quarterback in the near future in Luck and a star wideout already in T.Y. Hilton due for an extension soon, it begs the question of whether the Colts reasonably can either? 

Dec. 2, 2012; Detroit, MI, USA; Indianapolis Colts quarterback Andrew Luck (12) scrambles out of the pocket while being pressured by Detroit Lions defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh (90) and defensive tackle Nick Fairley (98) in the second quarter at Ford Field. Mandatory Credit: Andrew Weber-USA TODAY Sports