Detroit Lions defensive end Cliff Avril reported to training camp on August 5, ending a 9-day holdout. After a breakout 11-sack season last year, Avril came into the offseason looking to be paid like a Pro Bowler on a long-term deal. The Lions had other plans, sticking him with the one-year franchise tag.
Like many players tagged this year, Avril refused to immediately sign his franchise tender in an effort to force the Lions to come up with a contract. When he still failed to sign the tender on the eve of training camp, Lions fans had real reasons to worry. But after an offseason of negotiating, it’s the Lions who have gotten exactly what the needed.
Make no mistake, the Lions need Avril coming off the edge this year. Willie Young and Laurence Jackson are solid, but neither generates pressure like Avril. With the Lions fielding a defensive backfield that may be even worse than last year's, constant quarterback pressure will be essential. Avril’s explosiveness makes this possible.
Even more importantly, the Lions need Avril happy and motivated. This was the biggest risk the team took by tagging him. Had Avril decided to sit camp in its entirety, the Lions couldn't expect him to match last year’s production. Instead, they'd be stuck paying an out-of-shape malcontent $10.6 million.
Lions GM Martin Mayhew took a risk based on Avril's character. He's not a Vincent Jackson type; he wants to play. The Lions will have to rely on Avril to commit early and play like he's in a contract year if they want to make noise this year. There are no guarantees that this will happen, but Avril's presence this early in camp is a major positive sign.
Finally, the Lions desperately need financial flexibility. Calvin Johnson is locked into a superstar contract, but Matthew Stafford and Ndamukong Suh are likely to command massive extensions in the near future. Unless one of them falls off the map or Avril takes another huge step forward, a long-term deal for the defensive end may never be in the cards. With the franchise tag, the Lions get an extra year to look for Avril's replacement without losing a key defensive player in 2011.
Mayhew played this situation perfectly. He managed to secure a borderline Pro Bowler on a one-year contract without causing a disruption during training camp. It’s a subtle victory, but it should pay dividends all season.