Congratulations, Miami fans! You have landed the preeminent free agent of the century thus far in Ndamukong Suh. From a Lions scribe who has watched every snap the fantastic defensive tackle has ever played–most several times–here is a little breakdown on what exactly you are getting for the reported six years and $114M, at least $60M of which is guaranteed.
You are getting an interior dynamo. Ndamukong Suh will be the primary focus of the opposing blocking scheme on every snap he’s on the field. Offenses have to account for his alignment, and he’s always been good in Detroit at making subtle pre-snap adjustments to change the angle or alter the OL coordination. Very few teams have ever successfully handled Suh with just one blocker for more than a handful of snaps.
You are getting a legit pass-rushing threat up the gut from the line. Suh can destroy pass protection with rare power. He’s a strongman amongst strongmen, blessed with violent muscle throughout his body. His jolting hands and how forcefully he follows it with coordinated leg drive and core strength is something no other defensive lineman has, not even J.J. Watt.
Yet he can also win with quickness. Suh has learned to set up moves better and to use his foot positioning to improve his football geometry. At heart he still wants to win every battle with a vulgar display of power, but he’s got the ability to do more.
You are getting a player who stays on the field. He’s never had anything more than an annoying injury, hardly ever missing any practice time let alone games. In that aspect he’s quite different from the other former Lion on the defense, Louis Delmas. Suh can play 6 snaps in a row on a drive and remain effective too. Stamina and conditioning will never be an issue.
You are getting a player who has developed into an outstanding run defender. It wasn’t always that way, but he has learned how to better locate the ball and to take better angles when he’s chasing it. Some Lions fans would argue with me about this point, but I also believe his overall football IQ has improved significantly in his 5 years.
You are getting a player who will “only” bag between 6 and 10 sacks, which on the surface seems like a terribly poor return on investment. Judge Suh not by his own numbers but by the sack productivity of the entire defense. In Detroit he was very good at tying up two blockers and clearing a blitzing lane for the MLB or a safety. He is great on stunts and twists, springing George Johnson or Ziggy Ansah for clean shots at the QB.
Because you already have an elite pass rusher in Cameron Wake, it might be hard to gauge Suh’s corollary impact on the pass rush. You will want to look at sack and QB Hurry stats from the lesser and role players…
…and here is where the story changes. The massive financial commitment means much of the rest of the defense is going to consist of lesser and role players. It is absolutely imperative for your front office to hit on schematic fits in days two and three of the draft, and to get lucky with an undrafted free agent or low-cost veteran or two every year. That’s not impossible–Detroit did it the last two years–but it creates a very thin margin for error.
Thin will also characterize the depth. When you sign a player to that kind of deal, there is less room for middle class on the roster. And that’s not just on defense, either. The front office will have to be sharp, and the coaching staff must excel at player development and recognizing what the assets on hand can and cannot do. These are the primary differences between the 4-12 Jim Schwartz Lions and the 11-5 Jim Caldwell Lions.
One thing you are not getting is a leader. He has tried hard to build up his reputation in this area, but it’s always been hollow noise. Delmas is a leader. Suh is an extremely talented individual who others can emulate, but he’s not going to lead the charge into battle or galvanize a locker room around him. There won’t be any problems with Suh in the locker room, but it can be awkward when the highest-paid player isn’t the definite leader. Detroit knows this with Calvin Johnson.
You are getting a divisive persona. Some would call Suh a pariah for his on-field controversies. It’s always been a delicate balance for Detroit fans, who see the attempted decapitation of Andy Dalton, the unnecessary cut block on John Sullivan, the grazing blow with his foot to Matt Schaub’s man region, the stomps (yes, plural), and to try and weigh how vociferously to defend the acts while at the same time being honest.
My take? He’s not a dirty player, but he is a victim of his own inability to control his aggression in the heat of the moment. Lions fans know dirty. Dom Raiola was our center for over a decade. Raiola was dirty. Suh is more prone to temporary insanity than “dirty” play in and play out. Unfortunately that makes his incidents more unpredictable and frustrating. It is going to happen, and his history has escalated the stakes to where Suh will get suspended for at least a game with any future incidents, even the fuzzy ones like his late-season stomp.
Many Lions fans are going to be cross about losing him, and some will go out of their way to dog their former hero. That’s natural. I know this a little too well as a die-hard Cleveland Cavaliers fan who watched “The Decision” on my father’s 65th birthday and made the cake taste like literal crap. It’s not like that with Suh, not for me anyway. Ndamukong always made it quite clear this was all business, almost coolly so. It’s frustrating to lose him but he never vacillated from his business plan and that’s part of who you are getting too. The man is quite smart, but he’s loyal to himself over all else.
Good luck with Suh. Sincerely. He was a treat to watch over the last five seasons (covering him professionally, not so much but that’s the local media’s problem) and he can make a good defense great.