Jeff Risdon, DLD Editor
The Lions face many decisions on many players this offseason, with more than half the projected starters on defense hitting free agency. One of those is safety Louis Delmas, and the decision of what to do with Delmas is the easiest; use the franchise tag.
Since being drafted 33rd overall in 2009, Delmas has had an interesting career in Detroit. The Western Michigan product was an instant hit, a playmaker for a defense that sorely lacked one in the back end. He started 15 games as a rookie, finishing second on the team in tackles and passes defended while leading in interceptions. He returned one of those INTs 101 yards for a touchdown, and he also netted a safety while quickly establishing himself as a leader and organizer on the field. In his second season his responsibilities shifted to more in-the-box alignments and less roaming, and he acquitted himself well despite playing most of the season with a groin issue that made him a regular on the injury report. He led the team in tackles while forcing two fumbles and recovering two others.
Delmas began 2011 as one of the unquestioned leaders on an emerging defense and a trendy selection for Pro Bowl predictions. But he never really appeared healthy, hurting his hip in the opener. A severe MCL sprain in his right knee suffered in the Thanksgiving game ended his regular season. He tried to give it a go in the playoff game but was clearly not ready for action. To show his value to that team, in four of the five games he missed at the end of the season Detroit gave up at least 350 yards passing. When Delmas was in the lineup the most they surrendered was 338, and they averaged over 90 yards less in passing yards when he played than when he was out.
2012 was supposed to be the year of the triumphant return, the one where Delmas took the proverbial next step and etched his name into the top ranks of NFL safeties. Instead, the injury bug bit him hard. Delmas underwent surgery on his left knee in August and missed the first four games. In his absence the defense failed to record a single interception. He came back in Week Six (after the bye) and bagged the first INT in the win over Philadelphia. He played quite well the next two weeks, in the 13-7 loss to Chicago and the 28-24 win over Seattle that was the high water mark for the season. But he got hurt again in the Seattle game and missed another four games. Upon his return, Delmas appeared hampered with lateral range and his closing burst was significantly diminished. It appeared at times as if he was protecting himself, notably in taking some dreadful angles in the finale vs. Chicago.
Now Delmas is a free agent. Because of his rather length injury history, he and his agent are going to want to score as much guaranteed money as they can for as long as they can. That makes sense; it’s what we all would do in this situation. But NFL teams are not going to want to commit lots of valuable cap space and significant upfront cash to a player they cannot depend on to stay healthy. If I’m Delmas’ agent I am asking for a deal comparable to what Oakland gave Tyvon Branch last year, 4 years and $26.6M, with a $5.6M signing bonus. At minimum I demand the 5 yr/$27.5M deal that Dawan Landry–an inferior talent–got from Jacksonville before 2011.
It is highly doubtful any NFL team acquiesces to those demands. Delmas is damaged goods with surgeries on each knee in the last 13 months. He missed one game in each of his first two seasons with other maladies, and he’s proven he needs to be very near 100% healthy to be effective with his style of play. On the open market the best Delmas can hope for is a make-good sort of deal like what Green Bay gave Jermichael Finley. Though Finley plays a different position and was healthy for a full year before his contract, their situations are similar: talented player at a non-premium position that has had injury issues and inconsistent performance. Finley got a heavily back-loaded 2 year, $14M deal, with the bonuses structured so that Finley’s first-year cap hit was almost exactly the same as the franchise tag value for his position. He got a $1M signing bonus, far less than a new contract on the open market would bring. The second season featured a much higher base salary and a $300K workout bonus if he’s on the roster in June. Basically, it was a one-year deal for Finley to either prove he earned the more lucrative second season or was expendable at a cap-friendly hit. I suspect Delmas could get a deal like that from some team, perhaps even the Lions.
But it behooves both sides to go with Option B, the franchise tag. The franchise figure for safeties in 2013 figures to be about $6.8M, and the player gets all of that as guaranteed cash. That is more than what Delmas can get from any other team for 2013. In his situation, Delmas would be wise to pocket all that guaranteed money and heed the term “invest in yourself”. If he plays 15 games at the level he did in his first two seasons, he’ll be in line for a big payday in 2014 after collecting the $6.8M in 2013. His next contract would very well be along the lines of Eric Weddle’s 5 yr/$40M deal with $13M in guaranteed signing bonus that Weddle signed with the Chargers before the 2011 season. Weddle is a superior talent, but Delmas benefits from inflation and market demand. If Delmas cannot get healthy or fails to get back to his old self, he pocketed his big payday and will still get a shot at another deal, albeit one like the 1 yr/$2M Bob Sanders signed with the Chargers after years of injuries robbed him from being an All Pro safety.
Using the franchise tag on Delmas gives the Lions insurance against further injury. The market for safeties dictates that were they to negotiate for a longer deal, they would wind up paying the same amount in 2013 with more cap commitment down the road. The Lions have significant cap issues both in 2013 and beyond, so keeping it simple and short-term with Delmas absolutely makes the most sense. If he plays like the Delmas that Lions fans desperately want him to be, the team will be in prime position to offer him that big deal. If he doesn’t, they can say goodbye without any cap ramifications.
It’s a different situation than Cliff Avril this past season, where the Lions used the franchise tag to avoid paying him open market value. When teams use the tag in that manner, it invariably breeds acrimony and seldom benefits either party in the long run. Few expect Avril to return and he didn’t play as well as the prior season, hurting his open market value but not enough that he won’t still command significant cash. Using the tag on Delmas is a goodwill opportunity for both sides.