Don't Get Too Excited About Cliff Avril... Yet.


In a season where the Detroit Lions went 0-16, there were few bright spots besides the one that began with "Calvin" and ended with "Johnson." This was especially true for a defense that ranked dead last in the NFL in about every major category and even saw a severe drop-off in production from former tackling machine Ernie Sims.

However, the defense did feature one player who showed flashes of playmaking ability: rookie defensive end Cliff Avril. Drafted at the tail end of the third round, Cliff Avril made an immediate impact on the Detroit Lions defense in limited playing time, recording 5.0 sacks and forcing four fumbles. Although Detroit Lions fans are cautiously optimistic on Cliff Avril's future in the NFL, at least one beat writer has opined that Cliff Avril looks like he may be the most productive member of the Detroit Lions' 2008 Draft class, beating out slow-to-learn first round pick Gosder Cherilus and non-factor second-round pick Jordon Dizon.

So how good can we expect Cliff Avril to be next year? Can he be a cornerstone of a defensive rebirth in Detroit under head coach Jim Schwartz?

To answer this question, I looked at every 4-3 DE/3-4 OLB that was drafted since 2002. By far, the most predictive measure of a pass rusher's sacks in his second season is the number of sacks that he had in his first. Also useful are the factors that I used in my 4-3 DE/3-4 OLB projections, and are explained at length here. Using these numbers helps to ferret out the players who were good pass rushing prospects but for whatever reason had a bad rookie year. For instance, Mario Williams, LaMarr Woodley, and Shaun Phillips looked like a great prospects coming out of college based on my projection system, but had down rookie years for whatever reason. By their second seasons, all three of these players bounced back to levels that were more in-line with their projection coming out of college.

So how does Cliff Avril stack up? His 5.0 sacks as a rookie is impressive, although not jaw-dropping. Cliff Avril's 5.0 sacks was more than Mario Williams had as a rookie, but fell well short of the rookie seasons for most of the NFL's elite pass rushers (e.g., Dwight Freeney's 13.0, Terrell Suggs' 12.0, and DeMarcus Ware's 11.0). Overall, Cliff Avril projects to have a follow-up season almost identical to his first with 5.16 sacks.

This is actually not a bad projection: it means that Cliff Avril has about the same chance of having ten sacks next year as having zero. Neither result would be unprecedented. Here are the four other defensive ends drafted since 1997 who had exactly 5.0 sacks in their rookie years:

Jason Taylor
Trent Cole
Andre Wadsworth
Kenechi Udeze

That's an interesting mix of players. On the one hand you have one very good pass rusher and one future hall of famer, and both had strong second seasons. On the other hand you have two players who were drafted in the first round, flashed some ability during their rookie years, and then disappeared shortly thereafter (Wadsworth in particular recorded only one sack past his second season). This is an incredible range of results for Cliff Avril: superstar or superbust. However, if Cliff Avril does have that outstanding ten sack season, the Detroit Lions can be sure that they have themselves a star or at least a solid pass rusher: no player drafted from at least since 1997 that had at least 15 sacks by their second season had less than 40 sacks by their seventh.

But at the moment, there is no way to tell how good Cliff Avil will be. Hopefully, Cliff Avril will be able to eclipse the performance of another promising defensive end who had a promising rookie year with 6.5 sacks: Kalimba Edwards.



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