Cliff Avril has increased his sack totals in each of his four seasons. (Getty Images)
Martin Mayhew traversed his first three offseasons as the Lions' general manager without using the franchise tag. If he's going to push that streak to four, it might come at the expense of Cliff Avril.
Fresh off a breakthrough season that saw them break an 11-season playoff drought, the Lions have some critical decisions to make. Detroit has four restricted free agents and 20 players who can become unrestricted free agents, including backup QB Shaun Hill, running backs Maurice Morris and Kevin Smith, longtime starting tackle Jeff Backus, linebacker Stephen Tulloch and Avril.
Avril's situation is the most pressing for Detroit. In his fourth season out of Purdue, Avril recorded 11 sacks and six forced fumbles. He was, despite all of the focus on Ndamukong Suh, arguably the Lions' best defensive lineman all season.
Avril, 25, has talked about wanting to come back to Detroit -- even offering to switch to linebacker, if the team so desires.
So this is all easy enough: Detroit has a rising defensive star who wants to stick with the organization ... just sign the guy, right?
It is a little more difficult than that, mainly because the Lions find themselves in a sticky salary cap situation. As things stand right now, Detroit has about $60 million of next season's money committed to four players: Calvin Johnson, Matthew Stafford, Ndamukong Suh and Kyle Vanden Bosch. The cap is expected to rise a tad in 2012, from $120 million to $121 million, but that quartet of contracts has Detroit hamstrung.
In an ideal world Detroit would get Johnson signed to an extension that would lessen his blow on the 2012 financial situation -- currently, he's set to count $22 million against the cap on his own.
But even if the Lions bring that number down, can they commit to Avril? Utilizing the franchise tag would pin approximately $10.6 million on Detroit's tab for next season, meaning that, combined with Suh and Vanden Bosch, the Lions would be in for $30 million on three defensive linemen.
That's a daunting prospect. Also worth considering: Like most players, Avril does not want to be tagged.
"I definitely don’t want to be franchised," Avril said during a visit to the Super Bowl in Indianapolis, the Detroit Free Press reported. "I mean, I’ve been in Detroit for four years, and I wouldn’t mind being there for another couple more years or whatnot. The franchise tag kind of makes it a yearly thing, and you want security. You want to know you’re going to be there for a couple years so your family can get comfortable."
Looking at the pure monetary side of this, letting Avril walk might be Detroit's smartest move. The Lions have talented backup DE Willie Young, who had three sacks in limited snaps in 14 regular-season games, and could slide him into the starting lineup if need be. They then could use the $10-plus million they would save by parting ways with Avril to help elsewhere.
But this decision really goes beyond the checkbook for Detroit.
The 2011 season marked real, tangible progress for the long-suffering franchise. With a loaded offense coming back more or less intact in 2012, the Lions again look like a playoff, and possibly even a Super Bowl, threat. Losing Avril would be a major hit to that outlook.
The main reason that Mayhew has not used the franchise tag yet is, honestly, that the Lions have not had any free agents worth tagging since 2009. That's not the case with Avril, who has become a dynamic pass-rusher at a position that's fairly thin throughout the league.
Detroit has also made a commitment to build around its D-line, selecting both Suh and Nick Fairley in the past two years, in addition to signing Vanden Bosch. Avril is a key component of that focus. The Lions have about a month to figure this all out before the free agency period begins. For a team that so often struggled on defense, though, it seems counterproductive to bid farewell to a productive player, even if keeping him makes filling out the rest of the roster a tougher task.