Breaking Down Cliff Avril's New Role with the Seattle Seahawks
The Seattle Seahawks have made two of the biggest deals of the offseason, bringing in Percy Harvin via trade and signing Cliff Avril to a two-year, $15 million deal (per John Clayton, via Pro Football Talk). That's an impact move on both sides of the ball for a team that already has a ton of fantastic young talent.
That said, the free-agency period is always a bit of a gamble for any team—especially when players are headed to new situations. It's always an apples-to-apples comparison when a player reunites with a former coach or at least a coach in the same "coaching tree." Coaches love to do that, because padding the back of the roster with a bunch of players that don't need to be taught means that the coaches just saved a bunch of time and added a bunch of peer tutors.
A much more problematic scenario is created when players head to new coaches and new schemes.
Sure, just about everyone knows that defensive ends in a 3-4 are a heckuva lot different than ends in a 4-3, but different wrinkles add even more dynamics.
Because of that, a lot of people (myself included) thought that Avril would garner a lot of interest with 3-4 teams. The reasoning was that his role in the Lions' wide-nine scheme was just as comparable to a 3-4 rush linebacker as it was to a traditional 4-3 end.
What plays in the Seahawks' favor in that regard is that while the Lions' 4-3 and the Seahawks 4-3 look a lot different in practice, the nine-technique that Avril played in Detroit isn't that different from the "leo" position (or elephant as some teams call it) that he will play in Seattle.
Listen to Chris Clemons describe the position:
You get to do all of the things you do as a linebacker and you get to do things you do as a defensive end. I’m comfortable in both those positions, which is why I think coach Carroll wanted me to play this position.
It gets even better for Avril as we try to decipher why the Seahawks would spend money (and salary cap space) on a defensive end when they just drafted one last year in Bruce Irvin. For that, we turn to Jack Dickey of Slate (emphasis mine):
On third downs or in obvious passing situations, Seattle might throw two Leos into their formation, with rookie phenom Bruce Irvin (who has 4.5 sacks already, despite playing only a third of Seattle's defensive snaps) playing opposite Clemons (who has 5.5 sacks). Then the Seahawks' line looks like the "wide nine" everyone talked about with the Eagles last year, except it actually works.
There we have it. Avril is the new leo while Irvin's position could almost be described as a "sub-package leo." In the same way some teams might run a "big nickel" formation by dropping an extra safety into the mix, the Seahawks transition from their big 4-3 set up (where 320-pound Red Bryant plays defensive end) into a speedier set up. It's a lot like the New York Giants' NASCAR package.
Pro Football Focus ranked Avril as the 30th-best pass-rusher (subscription required) among 4-3 defensive ends but 59th against the run. This speaks to a player who is best suited pinning his ears back (as he was in the Lions' scheme) than being an every-down player in the same division as Frank Gore.
So, Avril is going to bust, right? Not so fast, my friends; that's not what I'm saying at all.
Take, for comparison's sake, the player that Avril is ostensibly replacing. Clemons was ranked 58th against the run in the same PFF rankings. The biggest difference in 2012 was as a pass-rusher; Clemons was rated as one of the best on the site's list.
In terms of raw numbers, Clemons' 11 sacks are not that much more impressive than Avril's 10. However, if you add QB hits (Clemons 11; Avril 5) and QB hurries (Clemons 37; Avril 20) to the picture, it shows a player that terrorized quarterbacks a lot more than Avril did.
So, the obvious question is if Clemons' success was something innate to Clemons—a player long underrated in the NFL—or if it's something that can be attributed to the Seahawks' scheme and the players around Clemons.
Occam's Razor would have us believe the most likely truth is something along the lines of "all of the above."
So, the gamble is not whether Avril fits in with what the Seahawks want to do. The gamble is if Avril will be as dynamic in that position as Clemons was, and if the Seahawks' modified NASCAR package will be as impactful with Irvin and Avril as it was with Irvin and Clemons.
If the move is backward and not forward (or at least lateral), the Seahawks will find it hard to keep pace with the San Francisco 49ers in the NFC West.
Avril has all of the tools to succeed. Whether he will is a risk the Seahawks were clearly willing to take.
Michael Schottey is the NFL national lead writer for Bleacher Report and a member of the Pro Football Writers of America. Find more of his stuff at The Go Route.
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