I want to preface this entire discussion with one undeniable fact.
I really like Cliff Avril, and I want him to stay in Detroit for the long haul. He was drafted into the worst possible scenario in Detroit in 2008, and he has played a major role in helping turn that situation around.
It would be a great story, and a great decision, to keep Avril in Detroit as the Lions enjoy a new era of success.
But I wonder about Avril from a pragmatic perspective. There's no doubt that he's good. But how good is he? Is he made to look better by his supporting cast? Is he really, really worth the monster deal he's likely to get, if you take sentiment out of it?
To explore this question, I've been thinking about a guy Avril has an awful lot in common with: fellow Purdue Boilermaker Ray Edwards.
Edwards, as you may remember, had a couple of very good seasons for the Minnesota Vikings in 2009 and 2010. He notched 16.5 sacks over those seasons, and he did it from the left end position, not the more traditional pass-rusher of the two defensive end positions.
Of course, Edwards didn't even know what a double team looked like in Minnesota. He got to play on a line with Jared Allen and the "Williams Wall," Pat and Kevin. Edwards was arguably the least of anyone's concerns in that bunch.
But Edwards got his in Minnesota, and last offseason, the Vikings had to make a difficult decision. Edwards had earned a big contract, but were the Vikings going to pay it?
No, the Vikings let him walk, and Edwards signed a cushy $30 million deal with the Atlanta Falcons, where his production immediately fell through the floor. Edwards notched three-and-a-half sacks in 2011, and was already trying to justify his existence midway through the season.
Is Cliff Avril worth more or less than the 5yr, $30M deal Edwards got?
Meanwhile, the Vikings shoved long-time bench player Brian Robison into Edwards' role, where he matched Edwards' 2010 production with eight sacks. No falloff at the position, whatsoever.
Robison had a base salary of $688,000 in 2011. Edwards was slated for $6 million in Atlanta.
Which brings me back to Avril. Lawrence Jackson and Willie Young played admirably in 2011. Would the Lions suffer an incredible falloff with one of them in Avril's place? Is it possible that Avril is just a pretty good player in a great situation?
Of course it's possible. Look at the similarities.
Strong pass rush from the left end? Check.
Linemates taking up the offense's attention, allowing for lots of one-on-one matchups? Check (though Kyle Vanden Bosch is admittedly no Jared Allen).
A scheme that privileges the pass rush with little regard for anything else? Check.
And now, a difficult free-agency situation as the player in question approaches his late 20s? Check.
Now, for what it's worth, I think Avril is a better player overall than Edwards ever was. He has mastered the strip-sack like nobody I've ever seen. And despite all that, it's still very possible that a huge portion of his production comes to him as a result of his particular situation in Detroit.
That doesn't mean Avril would leave Detroit and bomb like Edwards did Minnesota. Avril would likely be a very good player anywhere. But by the same token, a lot of (cheaper) players would likely be very good at left end in Detroit.
I'm not trying to argue against re-signing Avril. I think he's a valuable piece to the team, and I wouldn't at all mind seeing him spend the rest of his career in Detroit.
But then I remember Ray Edwards. The thought isn't enough to change my mind, but it's enough to make me think.