Like most of you, I have been immersed in the Cliff Avril saga for the last week or two. That story line has spawned some spin offs regarding the future of our two veteran leaders on the line Defensive End Kyle Vanden Bosch and Defensive Tackle Corey Williams.
I have been a frequent participant in these discussions, also reviewing CAP data, PFF performance ratings, and individual and team statistics of all the Lions defensive linemen, not to mention most of the available free agents and other DEs around the NFL for comparative purposes.
After all of this debate and analysis, one conclusion finally penetrated my thick skull; the Defensive Line cannot remain unchanged from 2011 to 2012. Following is my reasoning for this and what I see the Lions doing and what I would do in their place.
I am not going to list the reasons in order of importance, because I believe it is the intertwining of the reasons that make changes inevitable this off season.
- The high level of play shown by Lawrence Jackson and Sammie Lee Hill over the last two years.
- The high level of play shown by Nick Fairley and Willie Young over the 2011 season.
- The age and relative decline in performance by KVB and Corey Williams.
- The pay structure of the D Line and the CAP situation of the Lions in general.
- The Cliff Avril question. What is his level of play worth to the Lions?
These factors have to be taken in context with the importance that the defensive scheme of the Lions places on a D Line that can apply constant pressure to the QB with just four rushers, for the full four quarters of a game. That requires a specific type of player and the depth to maintain that high level of play for a full sixteen game schedule.
Let's step through my reasons one by one;
First, Lawrence and Sammie Lee have shown that they can play their positions at an average or higher level over the last two years. Neither are outstanding pass rushers but they can apply pressure and are both much better than average against the run. Lawrence is under contract for 2012 for $2M, and Sammie is a restricted FA. He should be able to be signed for a reasonable amount. I don't see a high upside for these two, but they can be solid contributors on this D Line, if not actually starter quality players.
Second, Nick and Willie have very high upsides. They both flashed outstanding play in a limited amount of snaps. Nick due to injury, Willie due to the good health of Cliff and KVB. These two could be the future stars of this D Line. Nick is signed through 2014 and Willie's rookie contract is ending next year. He will be a restricted FA in 2013. They both deserve more playing time.
KVB and Corey are both outstanding leaders and can still play the game at an acceptable level, but both are on the wrong side of thirty and look to be declining. Especially Corey IMO. And they are the second and third highest paid players on the D Line, trailing only Suh and his monster rookie contract. High pay, being over thirty, and declining performance are not a good combination in today's NFL.
Money, or the lack of it. Nuff said.
And lastly, Cliff is still our youngest DE, and he is by far the most productive in terms of big plays. He has been improving every year, has been pretty much injury free through his career, and he is the type of accomplished edge rusher that every 4-3 defence needs. And wants. The question that the Lions have to answer is whether the Lions D Line will still be able to carry out their mission without Cliff. My answer is.......maybe.
In summary, the young, high quality depth on the Lions D Line in concert with the high pay and sinking performance of their veteran starters is leading the Lions to a decisive break with the past.
I think the Lions will franchise tag Cliff, then make every effort to trade him before the draft. If they don't trade him before the draft, they will keep him for 2012 and worry about a long term deal after the season. I also believe they will release Corey Williams and look to add a developmental DT to the roster. Other negotiations or cuts will take place to keep the Lions under the CAP. Those losses may be painful.
Personally, I would make every effort to sign Cliff to a five year contract for around $45M. Then I would release both KVB and Corey. I would then add a developmental DE and DT through the draft [could be UDFAs] to provide emergency depth and players that could be coached up to be the next Willie Young and Sammie Lee Hill.
I just believe that it is time for the young talent on the D Line to become the leaders of this team. Cliff, Lawrence, and Sammie Lee have been in the NFL for over three years and Suh and Willie for two. They should not need veterans to show them how it is done any longer. The training wheels need to come off and they need to take the opportunity to show what they can do.
If you made it this far, thanks for your patience. I will happily respond to any comments or questions.