By Ashley Scoby
Calvin Johnson has dazzled Lions fans for years. But this week, he’s giving them a lesson in the NFL salary cap, and reminding them of their Barry Sanders heartbreak from years ago.
With the news that Johnson is considering his future, numbers immediately start floating as to what his retirement would mean to the franchise.
Put in the simplest of terms, the Lions would free up $11 million in cap space if Johnson were to call it quits.
His cap hit for next season would be upwards of $24 million, should he stay. And he’s set to make a base salary of $15,950,000. Should he retire, though, the Lions would be on the hook for his guaranteed money.
When Johnson signed his seven-year, $113,450,000 contract (a league record for a wide receiver at the time), it included a $16 million signing bonus that is prorated over a period of five years. In 2016, the Lions owe Johnson a $3.2 million chunk of that bonus. Should Johnson choose retirement, the team could recoup that $3.2 million. This guide to the NFL salary cap is helpful in understanding guarantees, bonuses and general NFL contract questions. Previous attempts by NFL teams to recoup bonus money have gone through arbitrators or judges, but most have dealt with legal issues rather than retirement – such as the Aaron Hernandez and Michael Vick situations.
If Johnson does choose to return to football – and the Lions – it likely would not be under his current deal. The Lions would likely elect to restructure his contract and still try to free up cap space. Under his current deal, Johnson’s expected cap hits are $24,008,000 next season, $21,358,000 in 2017, $17 million in 2018 and $18,250,000 in 2019.
His career earnings exceed $113 million, and that does not include any endorsement money. Johnson had endorsement deals with Nike, Acura and Eastbay that would have earned him millions more.
Should the Lions free up that $11 million in cap space, if Johnson retires, they would likely need it to fill the gaping hole Johnson would leave at wide receiver. Golden Tate is a top threat, but the Lions would also need a downfield threat and some kind of depth. As this past season showed, the Lions also need major help on the offensive line.