Google Nick Fairley, and you will find the adjective “bust” synonymous with the third-year player’s name. It was one year ago when columnists and bloggers were calling for the Detroit Lions to dispose of the former Auburn first-round pick because he wasn’t living up to expectations due to injuries and a lack of motivation. But a strong preseason showing now has people expressing hope that he could be one of the best defensive tackles in the NFL.
So, what’s changed?
Fairley’s motivation, health, and dieting.
“Really just watching what I eat, cut down on my fast food, cut down on my fries, just eating healthy and being able to continue with my cardio and keeping my body in shape,’’ Fairley told the Press & Guide. “It worked out really good that’s why I dropped so many pounds.’’
He’s lost weight and is finally healthy, having overcome “nagging,” as head coach Lions head coach Jim Schwartz called it, injuries. Ankle and shoulder injuries limited his movement and strength the last two seasons, but hope was offered mid to late last season.
Between weeks 7 and 14, Fairley registered four sacks and started to slowly realize his potential. He was moving better and starting to give blockers trouble with his quickness and strength.
“Fairley’s gotten better,” then Chicago Bears right guard Lance Louis told the Chicago Sun-Times last October. “He’s moving around better than last year and playing more physical. Suh’s just a strong guy [with] quickness. He’s got a couple moves he likes to go to. They’re just good players overall.”
Fairley’s improvement has carried over to the preseason where he’s dominated. He’s received praised from New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady, among others. He’s been in the face of quarterbacks nonstop, forcing them onto their heels as he tears through the heart of the pocket.
For blockers, it’s been hell. Fairley’s length, quickness and strength have made him tough to contain. He’s beaten blockers with strength, bowling through them as if they were on ice skates, getting under their pads with sneaky leverage or beating them to the punch.
During Week 1 of the preseason, Fairley made jaw-dropping plays that illustrated his versatility while beating the New York Jets blockers. On one particular play that eventually drew a holding call on left guard Stephen Peterman, Fairley dipped his shoulder and slipped into the backfield for what looked like a would-be sack if not for the hold.
It was 1st-and-10 with just over eight minutes left on the clock in Detroit. The Lions’ fierce defensive line was lined up in their standard wide techniques, with Fairley at the shaded two. Lined up over the inside shoulder of Peterman, Fairley looped outside once he saw center Nick Mangold coming over for a combination block.
Sliding to the right of the line of scrimmage and then into the B-gap between Peterman and left tackle D’Brickashaw Ferguson, Fairley placed his left arm underneath the right armpit of Peterman and then lowered his left shoulder. This was done to gain leverage, which he’d ultimately do once he let go of the blocker and dropped his shoulders to sneak past him and into the backfield.
If not for a late push into the ground, Fairley would have likely buried quarterback Mark Sanchez into the ground and received even more compliments from coaches and players across the league.
What makes Fairley disruptive, along with his aforementioned qualities, is his first step. It’s always stood out, dating back to his Auburn days where he was tearing through the lightning-quick Oregon offense in the BCS Championship Game. His quickness is startling.
Against the New England Patriots in Week 3, he combined his quickness with his length to slap around arguably the NFL’s best left guard, Logan Mankins.
It was 2nd-and-8 in the first quarter and Mankins was in a two-point stance, indicating pass protection. The Patriots were in shotgun formation, which also gave away that it was a run despite a single running back standing to the left of Brady. Fairley was in a four-point stance at his natural three technique position, lined up along the inside shoulder of Mankins.
A snap by center Ryan Wendell set the play off and Fairley was off to the races. He fired off the line of scrimmage and immediately stuck out his near 35-inch arms towards Mankins’ upper body. With his shoulders squared for leverage and strength purposes, he pushed Mankins aside with an extended left arm and brought his right arm over to swim into the A-gap. A quick out pass to rookie wide receiver Kenbrell Thompkins by Brady negated the rush, but the damage on Mankns was done.
This was the kind of play the Lions hoped for when they paired Fairley with Suh in 2011, selecting him No. 13 overall. Injuries and motivation, as well as off the field problems, slowed his development. But now in his third year, Fairley looks to be ready to break out much like he did at Auburn.
“My first year at Auburn I was kind of figuring things out, the next thing I know that next year bam it happens,’’ Fairley told the Press & Guide. “I’d say through my first two years figuring things out, my third year hopefully will break out.’’