A lot has been made of Cliff Avril’s contract negotiations over this past off-season. Detroit tagged Avril with a 10.6 million dollar franchise tender, which didn’t bode well in the mind of Avril, holding out until just last Sunday as he was seeking a long-term deal. Avril finally signed his tender and is now a full participant in training camp even making an in-game appearance at Baltimore in the Lion’s second preseason warm-up on Friday night.
With Avril, Detroit boasts one of the fiercest defensive lines in the NFL. Even their second string, all of which could start for almost any defensive unit in the league, accounted for nearly 25% of the team’s total sacks in 2011. Opposing offenses have no choice but to game plan specifically around this unit. Detroit’s starters (Avril, Ndamukong Suh, Corey Williams and Kyle Vanden Bosch) make up an elite pass rushing unit that ranked 3rd in the NFC in total sacks in 2010 and 7th in 2011.
There are questions that loom and decisions to be made as far as keeping this starting unit intact for as long as possible. Among them is Avril’s contract situation. The “Franchise Tag” only guarantees one season.
Along with Avril, the Lions have to consider offering an extension to fellow free agent-to-be Corey Williams (age 32) that would, effectively, end his career in Detroit. Williams next contract will likely be his last given his age. Vanden Bosch (age 33) also has an expiring contract in 2013, but there are pros (his leadership and mentoring of the next generation of Lions defense) and also cons (his age and the big contract he would demand) in re-signing him as well.
Suh and Fairley are both locked up for a few more seasons, but beside them and beyond this season looms a gaping hole that threatens to shake up this extraordinary defensive line. Here is an exhaustive list of the Lions D-linemen (along with their age and expiring contracts) about to hit the open market at THIS season’s end if contract extensions are not reached in the meantime:
DE Cliff Avril (age 26 – 1 yr/$10,605,000)
DT Corey Williams (age 32 – 6 yr/$38,600,000)
DE Willie Young (age 26 – 3 yr/$1,263,000)
DE Lawrence Jackson (age 26 – 5 yr/$11,250,000)
DT Sammie Lee Hill (age 25 – 1 yr/$1,260,000)
DT Andre Fluellen (age 27 – 1 yr/$765,000)
DE Everette Brown (age 25 – 1 yr/$615,000)
That’s a lot of one year contracts. While I don’t see a mass-exodus on the horizon, I know that GM Martin Mayhew along with the Lions front office are jockeying for position to figure out how to keep most (if not all) of this talent on hand for the foreseeable future. At the top of this list is DE Cliff Avril, the 92nd overall pick from 5 years ago. Avril is the classic case of an over-achiever. Coming out of Purdue, there was no doubting his pass rushing abilities at the collegiate level, but questions did remain about his strength, maxing out at just 17 reps on the bench press at the combine. Since these scouting reports and coming into the league in 2008, Avril has amassed 30 career sacks, 133 tackles, 14 forced fumbles, 5 fumble recoveries and a TD.
There’s no question Avril will be highly sought after by several teams if next year’s off season comes without him receiving a contract extension from the Lions. The problem is that Avril wants a max deal and Mayhew has to decide if signing him is worth the risk of losing a few other young, talented defensive linemen, which he certainly would risk because of salary cap concerns. This season alone, just 5 players make up over 30% of the Lions total salary costs (Calvin Johnson, Cliff Avril, Matthew Stafford, Ndamukong Suh and Kyle Vanden Bosch). Considering an NFL team is composed of 53 players, this is a lot of scratch riding on only a few guys. The question is, do Mayhew and the Lions want to continue the trend of high priced studs at the expense of (or perhaps rolling the dice at) depth and younger players with a lot of upside? The answer: wait and see.