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Ndamukong Suh could be an intriguing NFL free agent next spring

The Lions face a significant challenge to get Ndamukong Suh (right) under contract before he hits the open market. (Jonathan Newton / The Washington Post)

The Detroit Lions’ announcement Monday that they’d halted contract talks with defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh until after the 2014 season creates an intriguing possibility that the three-time Pro Bowl selection will be available on the NFL’s free agent market next spring — and thus become one of the most fascinating targets in some time.

Lions officials expressed confidence Monday they would re-sign Suh. But then again, they’d previously expressed confidence he’d be re-signed by now. And if they stick to the current plan of not resuming discussions with Suh and agent Jimmy Sexton on a new deal until after the season, they will be perilously close allowing Suh to see what his services could fetch on the open market.

If Suh has an injury-free, productive season, the Lions probably would have a difficult time convincing him to sign a new deal with them before seeing what his market value would be. The Lions always could use the franchise player tag to restrict Suh’s mobility, but that would come at a major cost. Suh’s current contract, which expires after this season, counts about $22.4 million against this year’s salary cap. So to franchise him next spring, the Lions would have to give him a one-year deal at a 20 percent raise, or about $26.9 million. As a comparison, the second-highest cap hit for any defensive tackle in 2014 is Haloti Ngata of the Baltimore Ravens at $16 million.

“You probably can’t franchise him at those numbers,” said an NFL agent who does not represent Suh and spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss another agent’s client. “If he has a good year and doesn’t have any incidents where he gets suspended, they’re gonna have a tough time doing a deal with him before free agency. The one thing he has to worry about if he hits the market is his past.”

Suh twice has been named the league’s dirtiest player in Sporting News polls of NFL players. He was suspended for two games by the league for stepping on the arm of Green Bay Packers guard Evan Dietrich-Smith following a play during a Thanksgiving Day game in 2011. He was fined $30,000 for kicking Houston Texans quarterback Matt Schaub in the groin in 2012 and $100,000 for a low block on Minnesota Vikings center John Sullivan last year during an interception return.

“There might be a little bit of the [Albert] Haynesworth factor,” said the agent, referring to possible wariness by some NFL teams to offer Suh a hypothetical lucrative contract based on the issues experienced by the Redskins after they signed the controversial defensive tackle to a record free-agent deal in 2009. “But this guy [Suh] can play. He’ll find someone to give him a bunch of money.”

Suh, 27, has 27-1/2 sacks in four seasons with the Lions. He was named the NFL’s defensive rookie of the year in 2010 and was selected to Pro Bowls in the 2010, 2012 and 2013 seasons.

Suh is already the NFL’s highest-paid defensive tackle, making his potential open-market value tricky to estimate. A potential comparable could be the Bengals’ Geno Atkins, who signed a five-year, $53.33 million extension with Cincinnati last September. However, the full value of that contract was over $10 million less than the rookie deal Suh signed under the previous collective bargaining agreement.

Haynesworth, coming off consecutive Pro Bowl seasons with the Tennessee Titans, signed a seven-year, $100 million contract with the Redskins in 2009 that included $41 million in guaranteed money. But he played only 20 games over two troubled seasons with the team before being traded to New England in 2011 for a fifth-round draft choice in 2013.

Mark Maske covers the NFL for The Washington Post.
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