Cliff Avril is an interesting case.
Arguably the best value player Matt Millen drafted in his entire eight-year career as Detroit Lions GM, Avril has done nothing but improve his stats and refine his pass-rushing skills over the four years he's been in the league.
Yet there is a contingent of fans who contend that Avril's statistical improvement and prowess is less a function of his own growing skill, and more about the growing level of talent on the line around him.
Admittedly, the defensive line has gotten worlds better in the time since Avril was drafted. I would even argue that the Lions' current second-team defensive line (Lawrence Jackson, Sammie Hill, Nick Fairley, Willie Young) massively outclasses the starters from 2008 (Jared DeVries, Cory Redding, Chuck Darby, DeWayne White), the year Avril was drafted.
So in that sense, I can't really deny the idea that Avril has benefited from an increase in talent around him. He's a very good player who has the advantage of not being a double-team priority.
But to attribute Avril's improvement entirely to those around him is to deny the fact that Avril himself has improved and should be entering his prime right around this season.
Even if Avril is overrated because of his supporting cast, the next Ray Edwards if you will, his upward trend is likely to continue in 2012. The defensive line should get a boost from a healthy Nick Fairley, rejuvenated Ndamukong Suh and improved Willie Young, which means Avril's numbers are prone to increase once again.
And no matter how much suspicion you may have about whether Avril's production is because of him, or the system, or playing next to Suh, the fact is that he is creating production, and there's no reliable way to quantify why other than his own talent.
In contract talks, Tom Lewand can't pose the argument that Avril wouldn't have been as good a pass-rusher if not for Suh. That's a completely circumstantial argument, and he can't prove it. But Avril and his agent can prove that he had 11 sacks in 2011, and they will be able to prove his (most likely impressive) numbers in 2012.
And at that point, Avril will have even more leverage to demand an even larger contract, especially since it will cost the Lions roughly another $13 million to franchise Avril again in 2013.
The bottom line is, it matters only minimally why you produce on the football field. What matters is that you do produce.
One of the more puzzling arguments I've heard against Avril is that he's not worth the money because Willie Young could step in and do his job equally well. And indeed, Young's impact in limited snaps does seem to indicate a young pass-rush specialist in the making.
But for that "dump Avril, go with Young" crowd, I have to ask: If that actually works, what happens at the end of Young's contract?
If the Lions let Avril walk next season to some megadeal in Oakland or something, and Young steps up to perform equally well, he's going to want a contract like the one Avril got, because NFL contracts are all about precedent.
So should the Lions dump him, too, and hope the next guy in line isn't too much of a step down again? Should they just keep cycling defensive ends every three or four years, hoping to keep drafting diamonds in the rough who get the job done until somebody tanks?
Does that sound like a winning strategy for a team whose primary defensive strategy is to rush the passer?
Of course not. It's patently insane. And it's insane to let Avril walk without a fight.
Now, having said that, I am not placing any blame on the Lions for failing to get Avril under contract. They're bloated with big-ticket rookie contracts through no fault of their own, and they tried the best they could with the resources they had. They're in a difficult salary-cap situation, and they couldn't give Avril the deal he wanted.
Avril is playing hardball, but he doesn't deserve to be treated like a pariah, either. He's not at training camp yet because there's no reason for him to be there; he's not getting paid for it, and a freak accident injury would derail everything he's worked for to this point.
More to the point, the next contract Avril signs will very likely be the biggest one he gets for his entire career. Most of us go through life expecting our salaries to increase as we age. We get raises, promotions or better jobs entirely if we're lucky.
We don't have to worry that at age 26, we have to make enough money to sustain us for the next 50 years or so.
And sure, plenty of retiring NFL players get cushy jobs with the league, or as analysts or coaches. Some start their own businesses. But there are no guarantees.
Avril wants to be a Detroit Lion, but he also has to look out for himself. And that's okay.
Avril could sacrifice himself and take less money than he thinks he's worth. And then he could suffer an injury and then have a down year, and watch as the Lions tear up his contract and toss him the scraps.
And the fans, who love the team first and the players second, the same ones who decry Avril's unwillingness to take whatever is offered to him and like it, would shrug and say it's too bad. They won't take up his case and talk about how the Lions wronged him.
They may talk about how it's a shame Avril didn't pan out, or how they should have given him another chance. But ultimately it's a football decision, and nobody talks about how that's right or wrong. The discussion moves too quickly to who will take his place for that.
Well, Avril's decision to wait another year for a bigger payday is also a football decision, the same as a team's front office deciding to void a contract they signed.
And with the way things are trending in Avril's career, it appears that this is a football decision that will benefit Avril in the long run.