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Avril one of most talked-about free agents, and for good reason

by | CBSSports.com National NFL Insider
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The Lions' cap situation might force Cliff Avril's hand this summer. (US Presswire)  
The Lions' cap situation might force Cliff Avril's hand this summer. (US Presswire)  

Cliff Avril is used to being in the background. Avril is smart and funny, but he's lived most of his Detroit Lions career letting other big-name teammates do the talking (I'm pointing at you Ndamukong Suh). So it's been interesting watching Avril become one of the most talked-about men in NFL free agency.

That's happened because Avril has been uncharacteristically doing a lot of chatting. He laughs at the irony. "Here's the thing," he says, "I keep to myself. I let the other guys do their thing. But I'll answer a question if someone asks it."

Yes. Yes, he will, which has made him so interesting to follow this offseason. Avril isn't in the same free agent stratosphere as a Wes Welker or Ray Rice, or in all probability a Peyton Manning, but he is still one of the most unheralded and important free agents today because all signs point to Avril being on the verge of stardom.

He's already entered the free agent quote Hall of Fame. He said in one interview that teams had contacted him before the rules allowed. Then, just recently, he hinted if the Lions franchised him, he'd hold out.

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I asked Avril to come clean and he mostly did. He wouldn't explicitly discuss if teams in fact violated NFL rules by contacting him prior to free agency officially starting. But he also didn't deny it. Avril, however, was expansive on his feelings about the Lions and what he might do if the team stuck him with the franchise tag.

"Basically, right now negotiations with the Lions are going very slowly," Avril said. "I think the reason why is a little bit of everything. The team has very little cap space and who knows, I'm not so sure they want to keep me. They may not.

"I'm not saying if they franchise me, I'm holding out. I'm saying it's possible. I don't want the tag, and one of the only recourses for someone like me is if I don't want the tag, I either bite the bullet and accept it or hold out. Of course holding out is something you think about. I'm not saying I'm going to do it, but it's possible. That's all I'm saying."

Players have always despised the franchise tag. To them, it limits earning potential, and is a short-term fix. Players have never hated the tag more than now for a variety of reasons. A franchise tag sometimes isn't as much a statement about being unable to get a deal done. Sometimes it's a statement about how much risk a team wants to take on a player. Call this the Albert Haynesworth fat-ass clause. The Tennessee Titans franchised Haynesworth repeatedly and then let him go. They didn't trust him enough to sign him to a longer deal, so they franchised him every season.

The Redskins signed Haynesworth to a long-term deal, and several hundred cases of blueberry Pop Tarts later, Haynesworth was jettisoned.

More teams are now using the franchise tag as a sort of probationary period. If the player performs, a long-term deal is reached. If not, vaya con dios. Players and agents resent this with a passion.

But here's the biggest reason why guys like Avril despise the tag and why Avril may hold out and not be the only big name player to do so. The new collective bargaining agreement lowered the monetary value of the tag significantly. Defensive ends like Avril are among the most impacted. The 2011 tag value was $13 million, and the 2012 number is sitting at $10.6 million, according to NFL.com. That's a huge drop, and why the league might see a number of players missing large swaths of mini and training camps as a protest if they're tagged.

Is Avril worth big money? Last year he had 11 sacks, six forced fumbles and scored twice, one on a fumble return and another on an interception return. He was possibly the hottest pass rusher in football last year. One Lions blog, Courage's Corner, had an interesting statistic. Eleven defensive ends were taken before Avril when he was drafted four years ago, and ten of those players have a total of 60.5 sacks. Avril's got a total of 30.5 by himself.

Avril will probably ask for a deal in the $12 million-a-season range and here is where the Lions have a major problem. Four Detroit players -- Calvin Johnson, Suh, Kyle Vanden Bosch and Matthew Stafford -- could end up accounting for almost half of the expected $120 million dollar salary cap for 2012. That is, well, insane, and may make it all but impossible for the Lions to do anything but franchise Avril or let him go.

"I've been with the team when we were 0-16," said Avril, "and I want to be with them to win a Super Bowl. I believe I'll be in Detroit next year, but the business part of this makes it an uncertainty."

My guess: the Lions will tag Avril.

He'll hold out.

Then things will get really interesting and maybe even chattier.

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