Previewing some of the big decisions facing NFC North teams early in the 2012 offseason:
It's been a while since the Detroit Lions have faced the kind of dilemma they have with defensive end Cliff Avril, a homegrown talent and pending free agent who is in line for a budget-busting contract.
Edge pass rushers are among the most valuable commodities in the NFL, and in 2011, Avril broke out with 11 sacks and a league-high six forced fumbles. He also scored touchdowns on separate fumble and interception returns, showing the kind of athleticism that could make him a fit in either a 4-3 or 3-4 scheme.
The Lions, of course, are in a tight cap situation that will make for what general manager Martin Mayhew has acknowledged will be his most challenging offseason. Four players — receiver Calvin Johnson, quarterback Matthew Stafford, defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh and defensive end Kyle Vanden Bosch — are projected to account for half of the $120 million cap in 2012. That leaves the Lions about $60 million in cap space to squeeze in 47 other players, including Avril if they want.
One option is to use the franchise tag, which would require about $10.6 million in cash and cap commitment to Avril for 2012 and leave him unsigned thereafter. A long-term contract isn't likely to count much less against the 2012 cap unless the Lions artificially backload it and create a bigger headache in future seasons.
Like Avril, Johnson was 25 and emerging from a career year (11.5 sacks) as he entered free agency. The Panthers were motivated by the belief that a division rival, the Atlanta Falcons, would try to sign him on the open market, and in the end gave Johnson a deal that guaranteed him $34 million. Of that total, $30 million was in the form of a signing bonus that could be spread out over the life of the contract. His cap number was $10 million in 2011 and will fluctuate between $11 million and $16 million over the next five years.
Either way, the Lions probably would have to devote around $11 million in cap space toward retaining Avril for 2012. Is that a wise investment for a team that has about $20 million in 2012 cap space already devoted to a pair of other defensive linemen? Suh is projected to count for $12.7 million, while Vanden Bosch is around $7.7 million.
On the other hand, the Lions know how difficult it is to find a pass rusher with double-digit sack potential. Since the NFL began recording sacks in 1982, a span of 30 seasons, Avril is one of eight Lions players to reach the milestone.
Like anything else in the cap era, the Lions have the wherewithal to keep Avril in 2012. It just depends on how much they're willing to prioritize him, and sacrifice elsewhere, to do it.