When the NFL lockout ended last summer, one of the things believed to be on the Detroit Lions' list of priorities was getting Cliff Avril signed to a long-term deal. Coming out of the lockout, he had a one-year restricted free agent tender on the table, and he signed it in early August. Even so, the hope was that the Lions would sign him to a long-term deal once things quieted down a bit after the initial wave of free agency.
The preseason went by and Avril remained on his one-year restricted free agent tender, but there was still hope amongst fans that he would be signed to a long-term deal. Even once the season began there was still an expectation that Avril would get a long-term deal. The Lions signed Tony Scheffler and Rob Sims to extensions during the 2010 season, so it's not like they didn't deal with contracts during the season.
As the season progressed, Avril put up big numbers and seemed to prove he was worthy of an extension. However, the first two months of the season came and went and the Lions hadn't even had any discussions with Avril about a long-term deal. While the two sides eventually did start negotiating, no long-term agreement came about before free agency arrived. The Lions decided to put the franchise tag designation on Avril, ensuring that they would retain the right to match any offers that came his way. At the time, the move was viewed as the Lions buying more time to negotiate.
As you now know, the extra four or so months didn't change the situation. The Lions and Avril failed to agree on a long-term deal, as the deadline for them to get something worked out came and went on Monday without there being a breakthrough in the negotiations. Avril is now set to play the 2012 season on his franchise tender, and the Lions won't have a chance to sign him to a new contract until next year. As a result, it's possible that this situation could repeat itself next year. If the Lions are unable to sign Avril to a new deal next offseason but don't want to lose him, they will have to franchise him again.
I'll be the first to admit that this entire situation is not ideal. I was hoping for Avril to be signed to a long-term deal as far back as last August, and at the time I didn't expect this to drag on so long and conclude with him playing on the franchise tag in 2012. I would have much rather seen the two sides agree to something so one of the Lions' up-and-coming defensive players would be set to be part of the team for years to come.
Now that a long-term deal is out of the equation for this year, there has been a lot of discussion about how this whole situation played out. Based on reading the comments on this site, it seems pretty clear the majority of fans are pleased with how the Lions handled things, especially after it came out that Detroit's final offer -- which Avril turned down -- was $30 million ($20 million guaranteed) over three years. The general consensus seems to be that the Lions were smart for not caving into Avril's salary demands, although some don't buy that, as evidenced by CBS Sports' Mike Freeman's take on the situation.
I think the Lions not working out a deal with Avril is shortsighted, almost dumb. But the Lions know they have Avril so they're in no hurry. The risk for the Lions is angering one of your good-guy players who also happens to be a promising young one. It makes no sense.
Again, I would have liked for the Lions to work out something with Avril, but why they didn't makes quite a bit of sense. They set a value for Avril, and it clearly didn't match up with what Avril and his agent think he's worth. While Avril told Freeman that a deal "was close," the Lions clearly didn't want to back down from their position in the negotiations. If there wasn't a salary cap, then I would say that the Lions screwed up by not bridging the gap and getting Avril signed to a long-term deal. However, the reality of the situation is that the Lions do have to worry about a salary cap. They have to plan beyond 2012, especially with so much money tied up to guys like Calvin Johnson, Matthew Stafford and Ndamukong Suh. This isn't Madden where you can just turn the cap off.
The Lions have to be smart with the salary cap, especially in the next couple years. In 2013 alone the Lions have guys like Corey Williams, Aaron Berry, Louis Delmas, Justin Durant, Sammie Hill, Chris Houston, Lawrence Jackson, Willie Young, DeAndre Levy and Jacob Lacey set to become free agents. Avril is also on that list. One of the few negatives of actually assembling a roster filled with talent is having to make tough decisions, and that's what the Lions did with Avril. They established what they were willing to give Avril and didn't go beyond that number. Freeman may see it as being shortsighted, but to me being shortsighted would have been ditching your plan for what you can and can't pay certain players and in turn risking there being salary cap issues down the road.
As for Freeman's point about potentially angering a good guy and promising player like Avril, sure that's a risk. However, it's not like the Lions have made a habit out of not taking care of their players. Case in point: Calvin Johnson got an eight-year, $150.5 million deal this offseason. Case in point again: Stephen Tulloch was the recipient of a five-year, $25.5 million deal back in March. The Lions are willing to open their checkbook in a big way, as evidenced by their alleged offer of $30 million over three years to Avril. The Lions aren't willing to go beyond what they have established as the value of their players, and that is by no means shortsighted.
Listen, I wanted Avril to be signed to a long-term deal as much as the next guy, but I don't fault the Lions for standing their ground. In the short term, Avril will be a Lion in 2012. In the long term, it's possible this could be his final season, but that just means the Lions will have to turn their attention to making sure guys like Lawrence Jackson and Willie Young are re-signed next offseason. I don't buy the argument that the Lions can just plug Young in for Avril and not see much of a drop-off, but they certainly have the pieces in place to lessen the impact of losing Avril should that happen.
I do hope Avril ends up being in a Lions uniform beyond 2012, but not if it means this is going to become a team that irresponsibly hands out big deals. The reality of the NFL is that you can't re-sign everybody you want. The Lions certainly would have liked to bring back Eric Wright this offseason, but it would have been foolish to give him $37.5 million over five years like the Tampa Bay Buccaneers did. Next offseason, the Lions will face a similar situation with so many defensive players becoming free agents, and it just won't be possible to bring everybody back.
At the end of the day, I really don't fault either side. It may be surprising to some that Avril turned down a deal reportedly worth $30 million over the next three years, but it's really not that shocking. If he is back on the franchise tag next year, he will make $12.7 million to go along with the $10.6 million he is set to earn in 2012. And if the Lions decide to move on, Avril will almost certainly get a big pay day much like Wright did. There will be teams out there willing to give Avril what he wants and more; the Lions just aren't one of them. There is certainly a risk in turning down a deal like that (injury, a down season in 2012, etc.), but Avril is setting himself up for an even bigger pay day down the road.
At the same time, the Lions are setting themselves up to be able to keep their core group of players together for the foreseeable future. They wanted Avril to be a part of it with that three-year offer, but had they gone beyond that, perhaps it would have prevented them from bringing back some other players who will be free agents next season. There are a lot of different factors that go into a decision like this, and it's much more complicated than simply potentially angering one player or coming off to some as being "dumb." From day one on the job Martin Mayhew has had a plan for how to build this team into one that can contend for titles. So far, he has executed that plan quite well. In a perfect world, Avril would be in the Lions' long-term plan with a long-term deal, but this is about far more than him. It's about maintaining the ability to have a roster filled with talent from top to bottom, and it's about not being shortsighted with how you manage your team.