March 5, 2013 at 1:00 am

Chris McCosky

Lions may not pay Cliff Avril like an elite pass rusher

The fact the Lions aren't having ongoing negotiations Cliff Avril's agent indicates they are willing to wait for the market to be set. (Daniel Mears/Detroit News)

Allen Park — Cliff Avril is a good person and a good teammate. He's a hard worker, an excellent fit for the Lions' defensive system, and he has been moderately productive.

But as we sit here today, a week before free agency commences, there is no way the Lions are going to offer him a contract that pays anything north of $10 million per year. They may not offer him anything north of $8 million per year.

The fact the Lions aren't having ongoing negotiations with his agent Brian Mackler this week — there has as of Tuesday only been initial contact during the NFL Scouting Combine — indicates they are willing to wait for the market to be set. And if a team comes after Avril early in the process with a multi-year deal that averages $10 million or better, the Lions are willing to let him go.

Avril turned down a three-year, $30 million offer from the Lions before last season, instead signing the $10.6 million franchise tag. At the time, the Lions praised him for "betting on himself," that he'd earn a better offer.

General manager Martin Mayhew, at his postseason press conference, was asked if Avril had won his bet. He said, "I don't think the roulette table has stopped spinning yet. We don't know if he won that bet yet or not."

The bet will be settled next week when teams start their bidding. But Mayhew's willingness to leave it to chance, to let others set the market, tells me what I have long suspected, going back to before last season: The Lions like Avril, but they don't view him as an elite pass rusher.

Not a franchise guy

They have identified their franchise players — quarterback Matthew Stafford and receiver Calvin Johnson on offense, tackle Ndamukong Suh on defense. Those are the $100 million men on this team. Those are the players who impact every game. Those are the players opposing coaches alter their game plans for.

The Lions never saw Avril as having that type of impact on a game.

It's hard to argue. In a system — the Wide 9 — is built to facilitate a pass rush from defensive ends, Avril posted 9.5 sacks and two forced fumbles last season. That was the best the Lions had last season, but it wasn't enough, especially when you consider on most snaps he was aligned next to Suh, who often drew multiple blockers.

In his breakout year in 2011, Avril had 11 sacks, six forced fumbles, an interception and scored two touchdowns. That's certainly a good season, but not a Pro Bowl season.

In the last three seasons, Avril has averaged 34 tackles, 9.6 sacks and three forced fumbles. Good numbers, not those of a game-changing player.

The Lions are well within their rights to look at the last three seasons and believe with some confidence that they've seen Avril's ceiling. He's a guy who will maybe get you 10 sacks a year. Are you going to pay $10 million a year for that?

No. Especially not when the talent pool at defensive end is deep both on the free agent market and in the draft.

Lions' prospects look good

The Lions can go in a lot of different ways to restock the defensive end position. With the No. 5 pick, they should have their pick of several strong defensive end prospects — Ziggy Ansah, Bjoern Werner and Margus Hunt among them.

"Those are all good prospects," former Colts general manager and current ESPN analyst Bill Polian said Tuesday. "They all have, to some degree, some instinctual issues because they didn't grow up playing the game here. But they all have the exciting athletic ability to turn speed into power. That's a rare commodity, and that's what you have to have to be a successful pass rusher."

The Lions could take one of those players, even though they are far from finished products, and supplement that with an older and thus perhaps more moderately priced free agent like Dwight Freeney or John Abraham.

Or, who knows, maybe the market won't bear $10 million per season for Avril. The Lions were able to sign linebacker Stephen Tulloch a couple of seasons ago after the market knocked his asking price down considerably.

If the Lions could re-sign Avril for four years at say $30 million or $32 million, they'd do so happily. But it's hard to imagine there isn't at least one other team with more available salary cap space that will give Avril his $10 million per.

That's a risk the Lions seem more than willing to take.

Twitter: @cmccosky

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