Even with tag on Avril, Lions have plenty to do

BY foxsports • March 9, 2012

Cliff Avril sent out a one-word reaction on his Twitter account after being informed that the Lions had put the franchise tag on him.

“BLESSED” was Avril’s response.

And blessed he is in a financial sense, at least for the 2012 season. He will make a base salary of $10.6 million, unless he and the Lions negotiate a long-term contract before the deadline of July 15.

Lions management has not commented since applying the tag, but the reaction to tagging Avril and the issues facing the front office in the impending free-agent signing period could be “Blessed,” “Cursed” and “Challenged.”

All three apply to the situation they face with Avril, and to the broader issues when teams can begin signing free agents on Tuesday.

The Lions are blessed to have an ascending team with good, young players.

The 10-6 record last season that earned their first playoff berth since 1999 was not a fluke. Under General Manager Martin Mayhew’s plan, the Lions are built to contend for several years.

But winning comes with a curse – higher contracts for better players who produce. And the Lions face that this season in a way that they have not experienced in at least a decade.

It’s a problem that the Lions gladly accept. Coach Jim Schwartz talked about the salary-cap squeeze at the recent NFL Scouting Combine.

“That’s probably a good thing,” Schwartz said. “It’s refreshing trying to find ways to keep good players.”

With key defensive players eligible for free agency, the need to negotiate a long-term extension with Calvin Johnson and the decision to franchise Avril, here are some challenges facing the Lions with the free-agent market about to open:
Protect the defense

Avril has been locked up for at least a year, but three other starters could depart as free agents. Linebacker Stephen Tulloch and cornerback Eric Wright will be unrestricted, and DeAndre Levy will restricted.

Tackle Sammie Hill is restricted and could get some play. He was a solid, improving player in the rotation last season.

The last two games were a horror show – a 45-41 loss at Green Bay in the final game of the regular season, and a 45-28 loss at New Orleans in the wild-card round of the playoffs.

Those games highlighted deficiencies in tackling and pass defense.

Packers backup quarterback Matt Flynn torched the Lions for 466 yards and 6 touchdowns. A week later, the Saints’ Drew Brees threw for 466 yards and 3 TDs.

Mayhew said at the Combine that he is not basing his offseason planning based on those two games. Injuries took away some depth on the defensive line and hurt the defense, Mayhew said.

“Those two games won’t determine our offseason,” he said. “If you go back to last year, when we had our eight pass-rushers we were pretty good.

“Really, we didn’t have that same energy up front that we had early in the season.”

Safety Louis Delmas missed five games with a knee injury before returning to face the Saints at less than full strength.

“When we’re healthy and we’re humming, we’re a pretty good defense,” Mayhew said.

At whatever level you rate the defense – and it needs an upgrade in the back seven – losing starters won’t let it hum at the same level.
Megatron’s Mega-deal

Without a renegotiation, Johnson will be on the last year of his contract in 2012, with a salary-cap number of a little more than $21 million.

Reaching an agreement with Johnson on a new deal might be the most important job of the Lions’ front office this offseason.

It isn’t a case of paying Johnson less money. The issue is to lock him up for an extended period and lower his salary-cap number for 2012 to give flexibility to re-sign players and pursue free agents from other teams.

The option of playing without Johnson – which has never been expressed by anyone connected with the Lions – is unthinkable. He might be the NFL’s best player, excluding quarterbacks, and the notion that a couple of lesser players could pick up the slack left by his absence is laughable.

This is a deal that must be done – at whatever cost.
Cliff Avril

He fits the model of players Mayhew and Schwartz want – young, talented and productive.

The franchise-tag salary of $10.6 million is a heavy hit on the salary cap, but it’s not that far out of line with some other contracts given to comparable defensive ends.

A year ago, Charles Johnson re-signed with the Panthers, with a six-year, $72-million contract –- and $30 million guaranteed.

Last week, the Colts re-signed Robert Mathis. His deal: four years, $36 million, with $24 million guaranteed in the first two years.

Avril’s production is similar production to those two players. His contract should be, too.