The Fairley Verdict

| April 29, 2011

When it was first speculated the Lions would land Nick Fairley, I thought how odd that was. If there’s one position Detroit is really stacked at, it’s defensive tackle.

They traded for Corey Williams last year, and watched Sammie Lee Hill really start to develop in 2010. Then, of course, they’ve got this guy called Ndamukong Suh you may have heard of. No? Well he’s a special talent they spent a first rounder on last year.

So, for a team with so many needs, I thought it outlandish that the Lions would pass on grabbing the cornerback they desperately need or some help on the offensive line. Those were areas we covered in our Help Wanted piece on the Lions.

But they did, and I found myself caught between thinking it was a waste of a pick and begrudgingly respecting the Lions for going best player available.

Do I like the pick? Join me in weighing the arguments.
 

The Case Against

The Lions’ secondary was bad last year. Real bad. They don’t have a guy on the roster who you feel all that comfortable leaving in coverage, with the best of the bunch being Chris Houston. Note to Lions: Chris Houston is not a top corner. Obviously the Lions had Fairley above Amukamara on their draft board, but cornerback is such a big need, that they should have made the move for a guy who can make one of their weaknesses a strength.
 
Instead, they went for a guy who made one of their strengths stronger. Suh burst onto the scene with a tremendous rookie year, while Corey Williams was everything advertised. The two caused havoc and were excellent at getting up the field. Even Sammie Lee Hill, when asked to do less than his rookie year, responded in superb fashion. It wouldn’t be the most ridiculous statement to say the Lions walked into the draft with the best combination of defensive tackles in the league.
 
So they didn’t need another one. Let alone a guy who on paper looks to suffer from the same weaknesses as Ndamukong Suh, as well as some pretty big character issues that caused him to drop in the first place. Presuming he plays up to his one good year in college, the Lions got themselves a guy who will likely be very good at penetrating, but perhaps lack a little in run defense. Just think how the combo of Suh and Fairley would leave them susceptible to draw plays and trap blocks? To say they don’t have the linebackers to deal with that level of linemen coming at them would be an understatement.
 
In closing, Fairley was a luxury pick for a team that couldn’t afford one. This won’t bring them closer to the playoffs, and it won’t bring them closer to the Packers. It’s the same old Lions, making their team unbalanced, only this time it’s with defensive tackles instead of wide receivers.
 

The Case For

When you have the 13th pick of the NFL draft, you expect your selection to make a big impact. You don’t let needs force you into taking an unworthy player. You take the best guy available. In this case, the best guy available – because of the run on quarterbacks – was Nick Fairley.
 
Projected to go at number one some months ago, his fall shouldn’t have been to No. 13 but for some panicky teams deciding they needed a quarterback. The Lions were lucky he fell into their laps, and shouldn’t be defending the pick, but laughing about their fortune.
 
Maybe they did need a cornerback more. But Patrick Peterson was off the board, so why take a guy in Prince Amukamara that they obviously didn’t value that highly? If you’ve got two equal players, you’ll take the need. But the gap between Fairley and Amukamara was obviously so great it made no sense picking the cornerback. Heck, the Texans needed a cornerback and they passed on him too.
 
And so what if it means the Lions have four talented defensive tackles? That just means Jim Schwartz can run the kind of rotation he was able to run in Tennessee. His “A” and “B” units will let him rotate guys every five to seven snaps and not force him to use someone like Suh on 91.03% of defensive plays. You want your defensive linemen fresh, and bringing in Fairley lets him keep them all fresh, all game and season long.
 
The Lions’ scheme requires defensive linemen that can get up the field, and while Fairley (and Suh) will need to work on their discipline in the run game, it’s going to make life as a guard in the NFC North unbearable.
 

Decision

As a jury member, I’d be pretty split on whether the Lions made the right move. My main concern is that four of their most talented players are going to be splitting time, while their back seven (containing most of their least talented guys) are going to be on the field substantially more. I just don’t like that, and for that reason, I’m ultimately turning my back on the best player available strategy here.
 
The verdict: you can have too much of a good thing if everything that surrounds it is poor.
 
 

  • http://www.mlive.com/forums/lions Asteroth

    I still disagree with your assessment regarding Suh’s “weaknesses”. In your opinion piece last season, you incorrectly identified the type of defensive scheme Suh plays in. You wrote the Lions run the same scheme as the Titans. The Titans run a two-gap, read and react scheme, where the DT looks for the run.

    Schwartz is running Gunthers, “get-off” onr gap scheme, where Suh treats every down like third down, and goes into penetrate and cause disruption and get to the QB. Fairleys only “character concerns” were being out of shape and falling asleep during meetings due to sleep apnea. He is getting his apnea treated, and he will be training with Suh and KVB.

    Also, before this draft Gunther said if they had one more top flight DT, they “could do something special”. They were targeting Fairley, and were very happy he dropped. The Lions said their board was Tyron Smith, Fairley then ‘Trade down’. They were not going to pick Prince. Honestly, there isn’t much of a dropoff from Prince to Harris, and Ras-I-Dowling.

    Keep in mind, five of Suh’s sacks came when they lined up Suh at RDE or LB. I think Gunny ans Schwartz are scheming a high pressure defense, that moves players along the line and will cause fits.

    The reason teams ran on us last year wasn’t because of Suh “being trapped”. It was we are at lack of LB depth. Hopefully they can land Foster, Carter or Irving in the 2-4th.

    • http://www.profootballfocus.com Sam Monson

      If that is indeed the case then somebody has got their responsibility very VERY wrong in the scheme. There are only two possibilities:
      1) Suh has similar defensive responsibilities to any other DT and isn’t simply a lone gunman out there. He’s acting like he does, and it opens up huge holes when he’s taken out of the play by being too aggressive and not maintaining lanes
      2) Suh does indeed have free reign to go wherever he wants and shoot whatever gap he can find open, but if that’s the case then all of the Detroit linebackers haven’t got the message, because none of them looks to fill the gaps that he leaves behind him, which you see quite clearly in any other 1-gap system in the league.

      We’re choosing to believe that Suh was simply too aggressive in shooting gaps and in particular being susceptible to trap blocks and down blocks from anybody not right across from him, especially as he became visibly better as the season went on.

      If the fault is at the linebackers, they did it consistently all season long, with no evidence of anybody ever being annoyed at them for it or ever trying to correct it.

      I guess there’s a 3rd option: They’re both doing exactly what they’re supposed to do and the Lions just have the dumbest defensive scheme of all time.

      Which is it?

      • http://www.mlive.com/forums/lions Asteroth

        “If the fault is at the linebackers, they did it consistently all season long, with no evidence of anybody ever being annoyed at them for it or ever trying to correct it.”

        The Lions were playing with one of the worst corps of Linebackers in the NFL. Peterson consistently underachieved, Levy is new to MLB, and was hurt most the year and the other starters would be third string on most NFL rosters.

        It’s not a dumb scheme, it’s not just well manned at the moment. But facts are facts. You graded Suh as if he were a two gap read and react DT. He is not. He is a one gap penetrate and disrupt DT.

        Think about Suh in college, he anchored a two-gap scheme and nobody ran on him at all, conversely, McCoy was in a pressure scheme. The word from all the scouts was that Suh would be a better run stopper, but McCoy would be a better pass rusher. Mayock even rated McCoy higher than Suh because of this.

        Yet in the NFL, the defensive schemes they joined essentially reversed. Suh plays a one-gap disrupt scheme and McCoy is in a two-gap read and react. Suddenly McCoy is the ‘better’ run stuffer and Suh racks up sacks

        • http://www.profootballfocus.com Sam Monson

          How good or bad the linebackers are is besides the point. They never made any attempt to come down and fill the gap being left by Suh. The worst linebackers in the league would make a visible move towards that gap. Whether they successfully fill it or not is another matter, but saying they were a poor group therefore they never made any attempt to do so is a ridiculous argument.

          There is no way I’m buying the assertion that the Detroit linebackers were supposed to be covering a gap left by Suh all season long whilst he chased holes all over the line when at no point did they ever move like that was their responsibility, especially when Suh got better at recognizing trap and down blocks as the season wore on and played the run better and more conservatively.

    • John Breitenbach

      The Titans weren’t playing 2 gap read and react. They were playing 1 gap with wide nine DEs under Jim Washburn …

      • John Breitenbach

        Go check out Jason Jones’ performances at DT for the Titans.

      • http://www.mlive.com/forums/lions Asteroth

        When Schwartz was in Tennessee, they deferred to Feff Fishers background and the tackles Two-Gapped.

  • http://zerodev.tumblr.com Alessandro Miglio

    The thing is, the Lions might have a serious shot at Brandon Harris and/or Ras-I Dowling in the second round, so passing on Prince Amukamara may not have been so bad after all. They are now utterly stacked on the front line and they will still get the cornerback help they need in the next round or two.

    • http://www.mlive.com/forums/lions Asteroth

      I was unhappy with the Titus Young pick over Harris or Foster/Carter. If they don’t get some better LBer depth teams will use the aggressive Dline against them again and pick apart the soft middle.

      Or like last Thanksgiving, when Brady got hot and started torching our CB’s.

  • trancen82

    1. Clearly you haven’t done your homework. The Lions offensive line was in the top 15 of most statistical categories last year. To say it was a “desperate” need it an overstatement.

    2. Adding another high caliber play maker on the dline will make the jobs of the DBs and safeties that much easier.

    3. Chris Houston and Alphonso Smith both showed quality play at times last year. It was more a matter of being consistent than lack of talent.

    4. Amari Speivey transitioned from DB to safety last year and showed improvement in every game in the second half of the season. He could easily be a starter in 2011.

    • Nathan Jahnke

      In response to 1, I’m not sure what offensive line statistics you’re referring to. The sites I know of that have team OL ratings are Football Outsiders and Advanced NFL Stats, which both had the Lions in the bottom half of the league.

      In response to 2, they can only play so many linemen at the same time, and they already have players who play at a high caliber. If he turns out to be a great player as you would expect, he won’t be that much better than the players currently on the roster.

    • http://www.profootballfocus.com Sam Monson

      The O-line was ok, but there are players that needed replacing on it, especially in a couple of spots. It was clearly one of their needs.

      Alphonso Smith did show some nice play at times, but he’s clearly best in the slot, not as a starter on the edge, and he was also victimized as badly as any corner in the league against New England when they played. I’m not sure anybody can be happy with him starting next season.

  • http://www.mlive.com/forums/lions Asteroth

    What I really like about the Fairley pick, is it makes Suh alot more versatile. Several of Suh’s sacks came when he was lined up at DE and LB.

    Now the Lions can put a rotation of Fairley, Hill and Williams in the middle and move Suh up and down the line to create matchup problems.

  • Neil Hornsby

    Suh didn’t get 5 sacks lined up as either a LB or DRE. He got a couple when playing with his hand off the ground (one from a MLB type position on 3-6 and one on 3-13 playing as a stand-up RE). In fact for the majority of the time he was rooted to the DLT position. No other DT came even remotely close to the 909 snaps he played in one single position. He only played 10 snaps with his hand up and none of those were in the final 4 games so it didn’t look like much of a trend either.

    Interestingly, going through Suh’s 11 sacks, the most remarkable thing about them is the limited number of times he actually beat an offensive lineman to get them (3). Twice he ran a QB out of bounds chasing a broken play, 5 times he had the QB flushed to him and once on a stunt he was left completely unblocked.

  • http://www.mlive.com/forums/lions Asteroth

    The ones I remember were against the Eagles and Patriots. I read somewhere that five sacks came from those positions. But if it was two it was two.

    In any case, the Lions beat writer is reporting the Lions are going to use Williams and Hill under center, with Fairley and Suh on the guards…leaving Avril or KVB to fly in.

    Plus building a dominant front, it will give incentive for LBers and CBs to sign as FA’s. Their jobs just got easier here.

    • http://www.profootballfocus.com Sam Monson

      Linebackers love guys that eat up blocks and play the run, that’s what allows them to really play back there. If a DT is all about penetration but can get trap block or down blocked out of the play by one player, it doesn’t make the LB’s job any easier, in fact it makes it harder, because he likely has a lineman coming at him and a hole he now has to fill.

      Maybe they don’t think about it that deeply though and they just see lots of sacks up front and want to sign on, that may well be the case.

      Either way I would expect Suh’s sack total to shrink dramatically next season.

  • http://www.mlive.com/forums/lions Asteroth

    Here’s an interesting article by Advanced NFL Stats which breaks down the effect Suh had on a game last year. His fumble recovery was from being lined up at RDE.

    http://www.advancednflstats.com/2011/04/top-ten-most-exciting-games-of-2010.html

  • http://www.mlive.com/forums/lions Asteroth

    And a quote from Gunny in that article:

    “Gunther: “What we’d like to evolve to is to have two giant defensive tackles and two real fast defensive ends – then you can do anything you want,” Cunningham said. “But that’s gonna take time to get those players.”