Upon first thought, Cliff Avril might not seem to be the marquee free-agent acquisition every Saints fan is hoping for on the defensive side of the football. In fact, if you're simply a novice football fan, you may not even know the name at all.
But make no mistake about it, the New Orleans Saints and their personnel department know who Avril is, likely to a tee. Are they going to make an aggressive push to sign him? That is a vastly different question.
In fact, it is the question I hope to answer over the next few moments. Just as with the Jacksons, I want to explore this player the way an NFL pro scout would—which of course, is virtually the same process as the one college scouts go through when evaluating a prospect.
Before I get to the pros and cons of Avril, it is important to note that Avril is more like a college prospect than most of the free-agent targets I have studied. There are two reasons for that: First, Avril remains very raw at his position, but part of that is due to a lack of experience. Second, Avril is coming from a Tampa Two, Wide-Nine defensive alignment.
In that defense, the defensive ends are essentially glorified outside linebackers. It’s an oversimplification of course, but in Detroit, Avril wasn’t asked to defend the run; only get after the passer at all costs. In New Orleans a season ago, the defensive ends were only asked to defend the run and forget about rushing the passer (at least in the base defense).
In 2012, the New Orleans Saints defense is going to require every defensive end be able to do both. To gain a spot on the field as an edge player, Avril, Will Smith, Cam Jordan or Junior Galette are going to have to prove they can hold up against the run but still provide explosive rushing abilities.
When you first put the Lions film, on it’s impossible to miss Avril. Though a frail defensive end, the former Purdue Boilermaker has a burst that literally makes it seem as if he was dropped from a canon. No player on the Lions squad—and thus, probably in all of football—gets off the ball quicker than Avril. With that, he plays with tremendous quickness and speed.
He routinely finds himself making tackles across the field and chasing runners down from behind when they get past the rest of the front seven down the field. Because of the obvious athleticism, he figures to be a versatile player who could drop into coverage on a zone blitz or even play some outside linebacker in a 3-4 look.
As with many raw defensive ends, Avril is at his best when he uses a speed rush. His jump off the football helps him get near the quarterback in no time at all. Occasionally, he’ll counter the speed rush with a spin move, or even try a bull rush.
In 2011, Avril had a career-high 11 sacks and caused six fumbles; plus, he intercepted a pass. That is very productive for a player who didn’t play every down.
Though there is a lot to like about Avril, the truth is that he’s still raw, despite playing four full seasons in the NFL. While he has shown an array of pass rushing moves, he’s really a one-and-done rusher. In other words, he pre-selects what move he will use before the snap, and if that doesn’t work, he gets taken out of the play and becomes ineffective. He does not know how to battle and counter the offensive tackle.
Even more disturbing than that is the trend which much film study reveals. Though he has incredible initial burst, he fails to finish plays due to a lack of bend and flexibility to get by the offensive tackle. He often gets vertical, but can’t get back to the quarterback because he doesn’t dip his shoulder to get around the tackle.
This is ultimately a product of a bigger issue for him, though. Avril really doesn’t use his hands at all. He gets engaged with a blocker and never gets off him due to a lack of strength and lack of hand technique.
This also affects him in the run game, as he generally gets lodged in with the tackle and is basically at the mercy of the blocker as to whether he sets the edge or gets hammered inside. Too often, he works his way upfield, seemingly forgetting about the running game off tackle or in between the guards.
Avril’s Potential Role With the Saints
Though Cliff Avril has a ton of talent, there is still a lot of refining to his game that is necessary. He is still 25 (turns 26 on April 8). The Lions are reportedly considering slapping the franchise tag on him, but he wants a long-term contract in Detroit or elsewhere.
If he were to join up with the Saints, he would be synced up in Steve Spagnuolo's defense and instantly become the unit's go-to pass rusher. He would provide some scheme versatility and allow the Saints to move Cam Jordan inside in nickel situations, something Spagnuolo did often in New York with Justin Tuck.
He’s also a guy the Saints would clearly aim to move around the field with zone blitzes where he drops, and someone such as Roman Harper or Malcolm Jenkins takes his spot rushing the quarterback (one of the corners would play the safety’s spot).
As we saw in the Super Bowl this past season, and from Spag’s defense four years ago, an effective pass rush doesn’t consist of just one player. Combined with Will Smith, Cam Jordan, and hopefully, Syracuse’s Chandler Jones (scouting report on him forthcoming), Avril and the Saints could begin to feature an elite pass rush—one that gives opposing offensive line coaches and coordinators headaches for weeks.
But the greatest characteristic Avril possesses and would bring to New Orleans is his ability to cause turnovers. It seems he always stripping the quarterback or getting a hand on the ball. At the least, he finds ways to get to the quarterback and cause them to hurry their throws. The Saints need to add that quality to their defense.
Though many don’t know much about Avril, he is going to cost someone some money. The very fact the Lions would consider franchising him shows they think he’s quite a player. He fits their system well, but if coached well, would fit the Saints aggressive defense even better.
Handing him large sums of money may seem scary for any franchise given his obvious immaturity on the football field. He was flagged for some egregious plays during the season and jumped offside more often than any other defender (strictly a guess).
But coming to a team with strong veteran leadership and an atmosphere wreaking of discipline would certainly aide the super-talented young man. Whether it happens or not, I’ve got to think Spagnuolo is begging Sean Payton and Mickey Loomis to consider a player of Avril’s equal ability.
We all know the Saints need that. Time will tell just who that player turns out to be.