OMH: Avril Spearheads Detroit Defensive Ends

Cliff Avril (getty images)

In the second installment of Old Mother Hubbard, Ty Schalter reviews a defensive end position that witnessed production from savvy veterans, but might enjoy some additional depth for 2011.

(This is the second in a multi-part series by Ty Schalter evaluating and discerning Detroit's off-season needs. Ty has penned "Old Mother Hubbard" the last few years, an idiom to restocking a franchise that was once left bare - ed.)
The Old Mother Hubbarding of the defensive tackles got a bit of attention this weekend; I was even linked by ProFootballTalk. I’ve been a dedicated PFT reader for, like, ever, and secretly I’m over the moon about that—but I’ve decided to act like I’ve been there before.  So.
The Pro Football Focus data I’m using is widely misunderstood, so let me explain a couple of key points. First, the PFF data doesn’t measure pure talent. The final grade doesn’t mean that one player is “better” than another, just that they turned in a more effective performance, on a down-by-down basis. Second, PFF weighs penalties in the final grade—so Sammie Hill, who didn’t commit a penalty, graded out higher than Corey Williams, who was more effective, but flagged a ridiculous number of times.
Second, it’s my observation that PFF’s system rewards consistency. A player that repeatedly makes a positive impact (and is rarely a liability) will have a much higher final grade than a player who “swings for the fences,” makes a few spectacular plays, and is otherwise often ineffective . . . even if those few spectacular plays change the outcome of the game. Watching at home on TV, at full speed, we tend not to notice line play unless the results are spectacular—so a player who is always a little more effective than you think (like Sammie Hill) is going to grade out surprisingly well. Meanwhile, the home run hitters (like Ndamukong Suh) are going to grade out surprisingly poorly, since every time you notice them, they’re doing something awesome.
Sometimes, this leads to counterintuitive results. However, a lot of what’s really happening on the field is counterintuitive from a fan perspective. I’ve said before that watching film is the “red pill of fandom;” if you start doing it you learn the truth about what’s happening on the field . . . and you realize just how wrong most of the national football groupthink is. PFF is a group of dedicated football fanatics (like you and I) who spend outrageous amounts of time popping red pills like candy. If you and were committed enough do to what they do, we’d likely get the results they’re getting; that’s why I’m using their data.
So, with all that in mind . . . to Wonderland.
Just as before, I’ve included the top-graded 4-3 DE, the Eagles’ Trent Cole, and the bottom-graded 4-3 DE, Kentwan Balmer of the Seahawks. The thick black line represents the average for 4-3 DEs who saw at least 25% of their team’s available snaps.

Cliff Avril

Just a week ago, I wrote that Cliff Avril was one of the two Lions who had the most to prove in 2010; boy, did he ever prove it. Avril was massively improved over 2009, and finished as PFF’s 11th-best graded 4-3 DT. He was 7th-best in the pure pass rush grading, and 4th-best in coverage. His athleticism, and linebacker pedigree, shows through in those grades. The question mark with Avril is his ability to anchor against the run; he grades out below-average there, but was far from a liability.

Avril was the Lions’ best defensive end, by a long shot, and a true difference-maker for the defense.
Avril was the Lions’ best defensive end, by a long shot, and a true difference-maker for the defense.
He saw an average of number of snaps, fewer than most of the other top-ten-type—but that was due to injury, not lack of use. If he was healthy, he was in there. By my calculations, Avril was behind only Ray Edwards and Dwight Freeney in pressures-per-snap—he had a truly outstanding year applying heat to the quarterback. When Kyle Vanden Bosch was hurt, Avril not only didn’t wilt under the pressure, he took the reigns and ran with them, handing in better grades as the season went on. Food for thought: he turns 25 next month.
Interestingly, Avril only had two QB hits all season, far fewer than most with his kind of sack and pressure numbers. My guess is that he’s relying on pure speed to get around right tackles—then either getting there and flushing/sacking the QB, or not. I wonder if pass rushers the QB can see coming don’t get as many hits . . . an interesting project for another time.
Bottom Line: Cliff Avril was pigeonholed by most as a 3-4 ROLB, and I’m certain he could shine in that role. But he’s developed into the fast, athletic 4-3 rush end Rod Marinelli thought he could be. Avril will never be a 270-plus-pound, two-way monster—but he’s already an impact defender, top-flite pass rusher, and a huge part of this defense going forward. Signing this RFA to a long-term deal must be a top priority.


The centerpiece of the Lions’ free-agent additions, Kyle Vanden Bosch had a lot to prove, too: namely, that he could still get to the quarterback like he used to. In his first game, it seemed like he answered those questions in style; I said it was “one of the most amazing individual performances I’ve seen.” KVB poured his heart and soul out into that game, trying to will the Lions to victory. He was sideline-to-sideline, or as much so as a defensive end can be.  He put up a truly dominant PFF grade that week, too: a +6.1.

Unfortunately, KVB was inconsistent the rest of the season. He turned in very solid games against the Giants and Redskins, but was negatively, or neutrally, graded in every other game. He was graded well below-average in pass rush; negative in five of eleven games. He was the 46th-best pass rusher out of 65, and had less than half the pressures Avril did—yet, KVB had five sacks and ten quarterback hits in just eleven games. His sack-and-hit per-snap rate was 25th-best in the NFL. This suggests that he was “saving it up” for critical moments; generally just below average except for several plays a game.

However, all of this does an injustice to KVB’s contribution. He was the bell cow for the defensive line, the tone-setter; he pushed every single Lion on the line to practice at full speed, to workout like you practice, to push, to go to the limit and then realize it’s not really the limit and keep going. Avril, Suh, Hill, all the young linemen repeatedly pointed to KVB’s leadership as a major factor in their progression; he was a catalyst, and without him I doubt the others take the strides they did.

I had really good seats to the Jets game, and seeing KVB in action live was something else. He never missed an opportunity—before, during, or after the snap—to remind the Jets that he was there. That he was fighting. That they needed to keep their head on a swivel. That they needed to watch their ass. Vanden Bosch and the Lions out-Jetted the Jets on that day, mostly thanks to KVB and his leadership. PFF graded him at a –2.1 on the day, but I know he had a positive impact.

Bottom Line: Kyle Vanden Bosch is the ultimate leader, a consummate professional—and as a player, the yang to Cliff Avril’s yin. Had he stayed healthy, he would have had seven sacks and fifteen QB hits, more than acceptable standalone production, besides the undeniable halo effect. Unfortunately, he’s 32, and recovering from a major neck injury. The Lions need to find a starting, impact, two-way end to replace him by the 2012 season.

Lawrence Jackson

The most surprising line in the chart above is the red one, the one representing Lawrence Jackson. Jackson was the 25th overall pick in 2008, a four-year starter at USC. Lo-Jack is a 6’-4”, 270-pound two-way defensive end, the prototype end for this defense. He was the victim—and the Lions, again, the beneficiary—of “One Man’s Trash” syndrome. The Seahawks let a first-round pick two years into his career go in exchange for a sixth rounder, because he no longer fit their system. To replace Lo-Jack, the Seahawks traded their own sixth-rounder to the 49ers for . . . Kentwan Balmer, picked just a few spots after Jackson in the 2008 draft. Balmer, for the Seahawks this year, was the worst-graded DE in football (see chart).''

Jonah Keri just wrote a whole book on how the Tampa Bay Rays went to the world series by making these kind of deals, over and over again. By trading one commodity for another, similar commodity, and getting a 2% edge; over time it really adds up—and at some point, you’ll get a few surprise deals where the edge is way more than 2%. In this case, the Seahawks essentially traded Lo-Jack for Kentwan Balmer. The difference, as you see above, is way more than 2% . . . and where did the benefit go? To the Lions.

Lo-Jack was not a terrifying speed rusher at USC. He had 30.5 sacks in four full seasons: 6, 10, 4, and 10.5, in order. But with size, strength, and attitude sharpened by life in hardscrabble Inglewood, Jackson was a force in both dimensions of the game; in his senior year he paired his 10.5 sacks with 60 tackles—a prototypical Schwartz/Cunningham defensive end.

When injuries hit the defensive line, Jackson answered the bell in a big, big way. Getting a steady diet of snaps from week 10 on, Lo-Jack had a huge (+5.0) game against Buffalo, at left end. He was flipped to the right when KVB went down, and was average against the Bears in his first game on that side. He was flipped back to the left against Green Bay, and had a very strong game, then back to the right against the Bucs and dominated (+4.5). He stayed on the right side the rest of the way out, struggling against Jake Long, but finishing strong against Bryant McKinnie.

Bottom Line: Lo-Jack produced like an above-average starter in heavy rotation, and from Week 10 on was one of the better 4-3 DEs in the game. I’ll hold off on anointing him the starter of the future for now, because I’d like to see more consistency—but there’s no doubt he’d be the perfect physical fit for the void KVB will eventually leave.

Turk McBride

Next, the ever-controversial Turk McBride. Controversial, because I repeatedly dismissed him in my offseason assessments last year, much to the chagrin of the commentariat. This season, the 6’-2”, 278-pound ex-Chief played about 40% fewer snaps than Avril or KVB, but about 40% more than Lo-Jack—exclusively at the left end until Vanden Bosch went down, then exclusively at the right end for the rest of the season.

The stats suggest that McBride was nearly as successful as Jackson; McBride had five sacks to Lo-Jack's eight. The second Green Bay game sheds some light on why they graded out so differently, though. By PFF’s reckoning, both McBride and Jackson had two sacks, yet McBride’s grade for that day was –0.3, and Jackson’s was +2.1. Jackson is clearly having more of an impact down-to-down; Lo-Jack’s run support is much better than McBride’s, as well.

Bottom Line: McBride is an interesting case. Phyiscally, he’s a bit of a ‘tweener, and he did manage to get to the quarterback five times. However, I’ve never liked the cut of his jib for reasons I couldn’t fully explain. The PFF grades show why: when he’s not sacking the quarterback, he’s simply not a factor. PFF’s consistency/home-run bias may be coming into play here, but it supports my eyeball take: Lo-Jack has long-term starter potential here; Turk McBride does not.

Willie Young

There’s nothing that can be said about The Great Willie Young that Neil from Armchair Linebacker hasn’t already said (at breathtakingly profane length!), but I will say this: in only six snaps, he was graded at a +1.5 on the season. He also impressed during the preseason.

Bottom Line: Willie Young is a developmental prospect with a very lean frame, a long way to go, and an undeniable knack for playing football. I hope he has a place on the roster for next season.

Andre Fluellen

We’ve already talked about Andre Fluellen as a defensive tackle. He played 81 snaps there, as opposed to 72 at end, during the Avril/KVB injury phase of weeks 11-15. As a DE, he graded out as a below-average pass rusher, and a well-below-average everything else. I believe his future on this team is as a tackle.

Bottom Line: At 6’-2”, 302, Fluellen is a defensive tackle. He should get this offseason to be developed and coached strictly within that role, rather than being moved all over the line. Instead of frantically gaining and losing weight to fit immediate need, the Lions should develop him this year as strictly a three-technique DT.

SHOPPING LIST: The Lions will need to find an impact two-way defensive end, ready to replace KVB as a starter by the 2012 season. Lawrence Jackson has the potential to be that end. Cliff Avril is an RFA who must be re-signed to a long-term deal. The Lions may look for a developmental speed-first end behind Avril, especially if Willie Young does not take major strides in the offseason.

About The Author
Ty Schalter is a professional geek and family man. He regularly converts his undying fandom into words and numbers both for, and his Detroit Lions blog, "The Lions in Winter." Recommended Stories

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