Cliff Avril’s Contract Demands: is His Production Worth the Money?

>> 5.25.2012

Cliff Avril is holding out. According to an report, Avril is seeking about $42 million dollars over four years, with about half of that guaranteed. Per that same report, the Lions are looking to pay him closer to $8M per year, and there the two sides sit.

Is Avril worth that kind of money?

Allow me to quote the defensive end Old Mother Hubbard:

Bottom Line: Cliff Avril, in this system, plays like a top ten defensive end. If he is not re-signed, his production and playmaking ability will not be easily replaced—and his production and playmaking ability is essential to the success of the defense. His re-signing must be the Lions’ top priority.

The answer, for the Lions, is “yes.” Avril is (at this point in the offseason) irreplaceable, and they would need to replace him with a top-flight pass rusher in the 2013 offseason. But is he producing like the kind of ends already making that kind of cash? Let's look at some analytics:

  Overall Rush Cov. Run Pen. PRP +EPA +WPA SpY SB $M/PRP
Calais Campbell 34.1 23.5 7 1 2.6 6.6 54.4 2.17 $11.0 $15.0 $1.67
Jared Allen 35 18.9 3.5 12.6 0 9.8 80.5 2.06 $12.2 $15.5 $1.25
Cliff Avril 6.6 11 5.5 -2.5 -7.4 9.6 45.10 1.45 $10.0 - $1.04
Julius Peppers 28.3 19.5 2 6.3 0.5 10.3 52.1 1.35 $14.0 $6.5 $1.36
Mario Williams ('10) 18.3 18.5 0 0.5 -0.7 10.8 29.8 1.13 $16.7 $19.0 $1.54
Trent Cole 40.4 35.2 0.5 10.3 -5.6 14.9 32.30 1.00 $9.9 $8.0 $0.66
Dwight Freeney 5.8 15.5 0 -7.5 -2.2 9.4 27.5 0.85 $12.0 $15.0 $1.28

The chart above is the usual set of Old Mother Hubbard data, with a few new additions:

  • Pro Football Focus Overall: The player’s overall grade, as measured by PFF.
  • Pro Football Focus Rush: The player’s PFF pass-rush grade.
  • Pro Football Focus Coverage: The player’s PFF coverage grade.
  • Pro Football Focus Run: The player’s PFF run-stopping grade.
  • Pro Football Focus Penalty: The player’s PFF grade for incurring penalties (snap count is accounted for).
  • Pro Football Focus PRP: PFF's pass-rush rate stat. Weighted amount of sacks, QB hits, and QB pressures divided by charted pass rush attempts.
  • Advanced NFL Stats +EPA: The amount of positive-impact production the player had, as measured by Advanced NFL Stats.
  • Advanced NFL Stats +WPA: The impact the player had on his team’s chances to win games. The table and chart are sorted by this stat.
  • SpY: Salary per Year. The player’s total contract value, divided by contract length. Data from
  • SB: The player’s signing bonus.
  • $M/PRP: The number of salary millions paid per year, per point of PRP.

    First, a reminder: this is a selection of the highest-paid and most-productive defensive ends in football. The idea is to see if Avril’s production is in their elite company, not to see if he’s good or not—we know he’s very good.

    Second, caveats: Calais Campbell is a 3-4 DE, so he gets a lot more tackles than a typical 4-3 pass rusher. This explains his lackluster PRP, but outstanding PFF grades and solid +EPA. Mario Williams’ data is from 2010, the last year he played as a 4-3 rush end.

    The chart is a little helter-skelter but you should be able to see Cliff’s line quite clearly. As before, his PFF Overall grade is very low relative to the other DEs. He’s right at about the NFL average. This is mostly due to his 11 assessed penalties; Avril’s play is quite good but he was flagged constantly.

    Avril’s pass rush grades were better, above average, but still well below NFL leader Trent Cole, and DEs like Jared Allen and Mario Williams. Remember, this PFF pass grade is an accumulated, normalized measure of “how good” every down’s performance was.

    Avril led the 4-3 DEs in PFF Coverage grades, trailing only Calais Campbell (which, again, “good coverage” from a 3-4 DE is a different standard than “good coverage” from a 4-3 DE). Against the run, Avril was comparable to Williams and Campbell, but well behind Allen and Cole, both of whom were in the top ten run-stoppers.

    Avril had the second-worst penalty grade of any 4-3 DE last year.

    Here's where it gets interesting. Pass Rush Productivity is a much more refined version of what I've been doing, dividing snap counts by sacks-plus-hits-plus-pressures. PFF is putting together a weighted total of sacks, hits and pressure then dividing pass rush attempts by that figure. This gives a true picture of how often these pass rushers are getting to the quarterback.

    Avril’s is a very respectable 9.6. That’s tied for 10th-best in the NFL with Baltimore’s Terrell Suggs and New England’s Andre Carter. In fact, it’s just behind Allen’s 9.8. Trent Cole led the NFL with a ridiculous 14.9. For the record, Kyle Vanden Bosch registered a 27th-best 7.3 . . . as I hinted before, that’s half as effective per-snap as Cole.

    Ready to have your mind blown? When I drop the qualifying snap percentage from its default 50% to 25%, The Great Willie Young is 3rd in the NFL with 13.7. Lawrence Jackson comes in 26th with 8.8.

    When it comes to +EPA, Jared Allen laps the field. His positive production was 2nd in the NFL with 80.5. Campbell and Julius Peppers nearly tie for second in this group, and Avril’s right behind them with 45.1. Cole, who’s been blowing all these metrics away so far, has only 32.3 +EPA.

    In terms of +WPA, Avril’s 1.45 was 7th-best in the NFL. Campbell’s 2.17 was 2nd-best, and Allen’s 2.06 was 3rd-best. Again, Cole’s monster productivity only netted him 1.00 +WPA; either his massive pressure didn’t come when the Eagles needed it, or the Eagles were going to lose whether he got there or not. Maybe a little of both? Either way, Avril’s solidly above-average production clearly made a big difference in the Lions’ bottom line.

    So we know Avril’s a very good defensive end, arguably one of the ten best 4-3 DEs in the NFL. We also know he’s worth more to the Lions specifically, right now, than he is in a “relative to the rest of the league” way. But look at those salary figures.

    If the Lions gave Avril the $10M/year he’s asking for, they’d be paying less relative to his pass rush production than any of the measured DEs, save Trent Cole—who had the most productive year of anyone in the NFL while playing on a rookie contract.

    To justify this money, Avril must cut down on the penalties without cutting down on his production. But unlike Corey Williams, whose production was partly due to snap timing, Avril's penalties are often post-play; the kind of thing he should be able to eliminate by keeping his head.

    But outside of that, given his knowledge of the system, his production within the system, and that production’s importance to the system, Avril’s clearly worth $10 milion a year to the Lions.

  •

    A Very Serious Talk: The Offensive Line

    >> 5.21.2012

    Okay, it's time to have a Very Serious Talk about the Lions' offensive line.

    I've been reading a lot of stuff lately about the offensive line. Let's nail down some facts about last season, so we can move forward like grownups.

  • The Lions were bad at run blocking last year.

    According to Football Outsiders' Adjusted Line Yards stat, the Lions had the 31st—2nd-worst—run-blocking unit in the NFL. This will not come as a shock to anyone who, you know, watched the Lions last year. Their 3.70 ALY was well off the league average of 4.08. Their Power Success rate (52%) was ranked 28th, and their Stuffed Percentage (21%) was 25th.

    However, the raw YPC by by the Lions' running backs was 4.22; that's just off the NFL average of 4.31. That's the 19th-best pace in the league, packed tightly with a lot of other teams right around the average. Being mediocre at the second level (ranked 21st) and solid in the open field (ranked 14th) shows the Lions' motley crew of backs managed to make things happen on the rare occasions they had daylight.

  • The Lions weren't really trying to run block last year.

    However, let's give that figure a little context. The Lions attempted passes more (666 times) and more often (62.9% of plays) than anyone else in the NFL. The Lions lined up in the shotgun 68% of the time, more than anyone else in the NFL. They carried the ball fewer times (356) than all but one team, and at the rarest rate (33.6) of any team. Though the Lions were undoubtedly going to be a pass-first team in 2011, they almost completely abandoned the traditional run game. Expecting them to be good at it doesn’t make sense.

    Perhaps the Lions' interior line isn't comprised of mashers, and the Lions didn't change personnel address that in the offseason. But swapping Dominic Raiola out for a he-man road grader would be making the Lions better at what they did one-third of the time last year at the expense of what they did two-thirds of the time. That's just not smart.

  • Rob Sims will be better at run blocking this year.

    As we saw in the guard Old Mother Hubbard, Rob Sims was one of the best pass-blocking guards in the NFL last season, but well below-average against the run. Sims intentionally added 20 pounds of quality weight from the end of the season to now, and he did it to shore up his anchoring against the run and interior pass rush:

    “Last couple years, I’ve been playing really light -- a lot lighter than I’m used to playing, and I felt there were some parts of my game that were affected because of that,” he said. “Mainly, some of the stuff I do on the run and stuff like that, I just didn’t have that pop I was used to. It wasn’t I was just gorging myself and wanted to be 20 extra pounds out there, it’s just that we’ve been having some trouble keeping weight on me throughout the season ,so I wanted to start a little heavier and work my way down.”

    Per Dave Birkett, Sims actually dropped below 300 pounds by the end of last season; that’s simply too light for today’s NFL, 68% shotgun notwithstanding. By getting back up to about 320, Sims should have much better luck cracking open seams for Leshoure and Best to pop through.

  • The Lions will run the ball more this year.

    The Lions mostly abandoned the run once they lost Jahvid Best, had one glorious game of healthy Kevin Smith, and then abandoned the run again. Best, Smith, and Mikel Leshoure are all participating in OTAs, which is a fantastic sign. If all are healthy, expect the run game—and under-center snaps—to be a bigger part of the Lions’ playcalling. When you’re setting up to run block, you’ll be more successful at it.

  • Riley Reiff could provide an immediate boost, or not.

    We know from the offensive tackle Old Mother Hubbard that Jeff Backus is an above-average left tackle. We know he began the season with a torn pectoral muscle, and played like it. We know that after the bye week, he played as well as any left tackle in the NFL. We know he tore a bicep against New Orleans in the playoffs; we know he’s supposed to be ready for training camp.

    The question here isn’t whether Jeff Backus can play left tackle at a high level, it’s for how long he’ll be able. Ideally, Backus gets healthy and has a great season, and Riley Reiff beings to push him next offseason, or possibly the year after that. Maybe Reiff solidifies the right tackle spot for the second half of this season, and swings over to the left once

    It doesn’t sound like that’s the plan, though. As Jim Schwartz said:

    "He's a left tackle. He fits the criteria that you want at that position. He's big, tough, he's a former tight end and a three-time state wrestling champ (South Dakota). He comes from a great tradition of offensive linemen at Iowa. He's a good run blocker and a good pass protector. "Even though he is young and will still improve in certain areas, we're not drafting a guy that's a developmental player."

    Wow, that sounds almost like he's planning on Reiff pushing Backus from Day One.

    "We'll put them all out there and we'll play. Their play in training camp, in the OTAs and in the preseason, that will determine those things, not anything we are thinking right now."

    Oh. So that right there is Jim Schwartz opening the competition for a spot  Jeff Backus has had on lockdown for 176 consecutive games. Moreover, it’s him throwing a pretty big bucket of cold water on the notion that Reiff is short-term right tackle help. It’s not to say he won’t moonlight there, of course, but the Lions view Reiff as their left tackle for the medium-, long-, and possibly even short run.

    The question is, even if Reiff supplants Backus, will Reiff play any better than Backus? Maybe, maybe not. I couldn’t think of a segue, but Holy Schwartz! regressed PFF blocking grades against offensive tackle arm length and oh man is it worth a click.

    Per Football Outsiders, the Lions ran behind Backus 20% of the time. That’s the fourth-highest rate in the NFL; only the Cardinals, Seahawks, Bengals, and Rams ran behind their left tackle more. With an ALY of 3.65, they were only 24th-most effective at running behind the LT, but the Lions clearly trusted Backus much more than the interior or the right side.

    Oddly, the Lions were most effective when running behind the right tackle. At 4.22 ALY, they were 20th-best in the NFL, close to the 4.26 league average. So if Riley Reiff is to improve either left tackle spot, he’ll have to be more trustworthy than Jeff Backus all-around, OR the best run-blocker on the line, OR so much better at pass protection than Cherilus that the run blocking doesn’t matter.

  • The Lions are actually really really good at pass blocking.
  • I know many Lions fans still freak out about that time Julius Peppers beat Jeff Backus and injured Matthew Stafford, but the Lions dropped back 702 times and allowed only 36 sacks in 2011; that's an Adjusted Sack Rate of 5.9%. That's 10th-best in the NFL. Pro Football Focus graded the Lions at +35.0 in pass protection, 3rd-best in the NFL.

    I know for many people pass protection starts and stops with a 6’-4,” 360-pound He-Man Hall of Fame Left Tackle who never ever gives up a sack, ever. But those guys come once or twice in a generation, if at all—and there are four other guys on the line, protecting four pass-rush gaps the left tackle never gets to. The fact is, the Lions do a very good job of keeping Matthew Stafford clean—even though Stafford is exposed more often than any other quarterback in the NFL.

    We clear now?


    Big offensive line thing coming

    Been working on it for quite a while. Shooting for lunchtime Monday.


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