LAKE FOREST, Ill. -- Chicago Bears head coach Lovie Smith credits his defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli for helping to discover Detroit Lions rusher Cliff Avril, who has gone on to blossom into one of the top pass rushers in the conference over the past couple of seasons.
Marinelli was head coach of the Lions when Detroit selected Avril in the third round of the 2008 NFL draft out of Purdue, where he began his college career playing linebacker before being converted to a defensive end.
"Of course, Rod had him and really kind of found him you could say way back in the day," Smith said. "He's not the biggest guy around and people are always talking about him being undersized and all that, but (he's got) quickness off of the edge and can play the run also. So he'll be a challenge for us."
The arrow seems to be pointing up for the 6-foot-3, 260-pound Avril who recorded 30 sacks and 14 forced fumbles over the first four years of his career in Detroit. Last season he posted 11 sacks and six forced fumbles to help Detroit earn a playoff berth, and through the first five games of 2012, Avril leads the Lions with 3.5 sacks.
None of this success comes as a surprise to Marinelli, who to this day continues to be regarded as one of the premiere defensive line coaches in the game.
"You could see it coming," Marinelli said. "He's got rare speed and athleticism and a knack for it. I haven't had a chance to watch him a lot but I know he's a very special player. The movement, the speed, the ability to play in space, the redirection and instincts... he's very good in those areas."
Bears tight end Kyle Adams spent two years with Avril at Purdue.
"Cliff is a great teammate," Avril said. "He was a really good player for us. I blocked him a lot in practice while we were in college and he definitely made me better. He's even tougher to block now. He's so fast as a pass rusher, I mean he's got long arms and uses them well, but his speed rush is the thing that stands out the most to me.
"I definitely thought he'd play in the NFL one day, but since he moved from linebacker to defensive end in college I have been impressed with how well he's done at defensive end. He was always very talented, but now he's become a great defensive end and that's been great to see. Not to play against him, of course, but great to see as a former teammate."
The Lions thought so highly of Avril they placed the franchise tag ($10.6 million) on him in the offseason to restrict the defensive end's movement in free agency. But will Detroit tag Avril again if the two sides cannot agree to a long-term deal? At 26 years old, Avril figures to be a hot commodity next year and will demand a hefty salary if he reaches the open market.
Last year, the Bears were rumored to be interested in Avril before he got tagged. Has that interest waned?
Without question, Avril is the kind of player the Bears would love to have on the roster, but can the organization make it work from a salary cap standpoint with extensions for quarterback Jay Cutler and defensive tackle Henry Melton likely on the horizon? Plus, the Bears also spent a first-round pick on Shea McClellin, who seems to be developing nicely, not to mention third-year defensive end Corey Wootton, who is hitting his stride in the rotation behind veteran starters Julius Peppers and Israel Idonije.
Keeping all of that in mind, it still sounds like a good idea for the Bears to at least explore making a run at Avril after the season if he reaches free agency. After all, the New York Giants taught us all a valuable lesson last year: a team can never have too many dominant pass rushers.