Franchise focus: Cliff Avril

Another in a daily series on NFC North players who are candidates to receive their team's franchise tag. The window for tagging players opens Monday and closes March 5.

The future of Detroit Lions defensive end Cliff Avril remains one of the Big Decisions we identified last month for NFC North teams. Avril and the Lions find themselves in a vortex of variables: He will be a free agent after a career season at a premium position for a team pushed tight against the salary cap. Can the Lions afford to keep a homegrown talent who totaled 11 sacks and forced six fumbles last season?

Earlier in this Franchise Focus series, we noted the allure of the tag for the Green Bay Packers, who could lock up tight end Jermichael Finley for around $5.5 million, and the Chicago Bears, who could retain tailback Matt Forte for about $7.7 million. In Avril's case, however, the franchise tag would be an inefficient and costly tool in the short term.

The NFL has not released its official franchise numbers for 2012, but writing for Football Outsiders, Brian McIntyre has projected it to be about $11 million for defensive ends. At last check, the Lions were slightly over the projected NFL cap limit of $120 million, meaning they would have to clear (or create) $11 million in space prior to placing the tag on Avril.

That would be a difficult task for a team with deep cap issues and a number of equally important priorities. Of course, the alternative is signing Avril to a long-term extension that would require a significantly higher cash commitment but could be written to maintain a lower first-year cap total.

Two recent deals, both of which average about $12 million per season, provide context for the type of deal Avril could receive. Kansas City Chiefs linebacker Tamba Hali is playing under a five-year, $60 million deal that includes $35 million in guarantees, while Carolina Panthers defensive end Charles Johnson signed a six-year, $72 million contract last summer with $30 million guaranteed.

As we noted last month, Johnson's deal counted about $10 million against the cap in 2011, and his cap numbers will fluctuate between $11 million and $16 million throughout the deal.

Considered together, these numbers illustrate why it is going to be a difficult task for the Lions to bring Avril back. The Lions could artificially lower his first-year cap number in a long-term deal, but eventually they would have to pay for it. Pass-rushers almost always get paid, one way or the other, and Avril will be no different.