Free Agent Profile: Nick Fairley
Today we finish up a week of free agent profiles with Detroit’s other free agent defensive tackle, Nick Fairley. The Auburn lineman left school early after capping off his junior year with the Defensive Player of the Game award in the BCS National Championship game in 2011.
Despite the Lions’ picking fellow defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh in the first round the previous year, Detroit selected Fairley with the 13th overall pick in the 2011 NFL Draft.
Fairley’s rookie season didn’t get off to a good start after suffering a foot injury that required surgery during training camp and kept him on the sidelines for the first few weeks of the regular season. Between missing time and solid depth along the defensive line, Fairley played just 274 snaps and never more than half the snaps of any game. He had a few splash plays throughout the season, including a game against Carolina where he picked up four total pressures on 18 pass rush snaps (+4.8 overall), but otherwise did not have an impact for the Lions on a consistent basis.
Fairley entered the 2012 season behind Corey Williams on the depth chart, but an early injury to Williams allowed Fairley to slide in as the starter next to Suh. With the increase in playing time, he began to have a more consistent impact and continued to improve over the course of the season. Over a six-game stretch in the middle of the season, Fairley earned a +15.1 overall grade that ranked second among interior defensive linemen.
Unfortunately, his season was cut short due to injury and he missed the final three games of the regular season. Fairly had made his mark though, and he finished among the Top 5 defensive tackles in both pass rushing and run defense grades. His 9.4 Pass Rushing Productivity, which looks at pass rushing effectiveness on a per snap basis, was second among defensive tackles.
With the big jump in production in 2012, many expected Fairley’s third season in the league to be his breakout year. While he did not miss time and didn’t have a poor season, his play did regress somewhat. He wasn’t as stout in defending the run as he had been the previous year and finished with a -4.6 run defense grade on the season.
His sack total and total pressures were slightly up from the previous year, but it also took a sizeable increase in snaps to reach those figures. Even though his Pass Rushing Productivity took a hit, his 7.8 PRP remained above average for the position.
The Lions’ were unsatisfied enough with Fairley that last March they decided to not exercise his fifth-year option for 2015 in an attempt to motivate him. Fairley’s struggle with weight entering training camp was a big story to start his season. It was an even bigger issue for Detroit as they dropped him down to second-team defense during the preseason. However, Fairley performed as if it wasn’t an issue once the regular season started and by Week 6 he looked like the player we had seen in 2012. He earned a +11.1 overall grade through the first seven weeks, which put him back in the Top 10 defensive tackles over that time frame, including ten total pressures over Weeks 6 and 7.
Unfortunately, Fairley lost the chance to build on his positive start after he took an awkward bit of friendly fire from Suh during Detroit’s Week 8 game. The hit left him with a sprained knee and he was unable to return for the rest of the season. Fairley finished the year with the highest PRP among qualifying defensive tackles and ranked 14th in Run Stop Percentage out of 82 players at his position.
While Fairley is certainly capable of overpowering offensive linemen, he has found a lot of success as a pass rusher through quick, skillful moves despite his size. He does a good job at swiping offensive linemen’s arms to prevent them from getting latched on. He also has a lot of success with quick swim and dip-and-rip moves, particularly to the outside of guards where they generally do not have help. As a run defender, Fairley can beat one-on-one blocks, but he is also strong enough to anchor down against double teams to hold his ground.
Fairley just turned 27-years-old in January and has clearly shown a high talent level during his first four years in the league. There will be questions about his injury history and his consistency, as well as some about his maturity, but he offers tremendous upside for a team willing to take a bit of a gamble. He primarily played tackle in Detroit’s 4-3 scheme throughout his career, but his size and skill set would also be a good fit as an end in a 3-4 scheme.
That flexibility may increase his amount of potential suitors. Although he won’t generate the same interest or money that teammate Ndamukong Suh will create, expect Fairley to still command significant interest as an interior lineman that excels at rushing the passer.
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