The great thing about the NFL is that there are so many positions that every year, there is almost always at least one player who has a breakout year on every team, no matter how good or bad the team is. This is one part in a 32 part segment detailing one potential breakout player for the 2013 NFL season on each NFL team (rookies don’t count). For the Detroit Lions, that player is defensive tackle Nick Fairley.
After a huge 2010 season for National Champion Auburn, in which he had 24 tackles for loss and 11.5 sacks from the defensive tackle spot, Nick Fairley became an early candidate for the #1 pick. Though he eventually fell on draft day because of concerns about his motor and scheme versatility, Fairley ended up in one of the best possible situations, going 13th to Detroit. His pass rush ability made him a natural fit for Detroit’s wide nine scheme and with proven pass rushers such as Ndamukong Suh and Cliff Avril accompanying him on the line, there wouldn’t be a ton of pressure on him.
As a rookie, Fairley had some injuries and off the field troubles that limited him to just 274 snaps in a backup role, but when he did play, he impressed, grading out above average both against the run and as a pass rusher on ProFootballFocus. In 2012, he once again entered the season as a backup behind veteran Corey Williams, but he wouldn’t stay one for long as he made 7 starts on the season.
Despite still limited playing time, Fairley had 5 sacks, 8 hits, and 21 hurries on 302 pass rush snaps. He also stopped the run very well as well, allowing him to grade out as ProFootballFocus’ 5th rated defensive tackle despite playing just 511 total snaps. That 5th place finish put him just one spot behind better known teammate Ndamukong Suh and if Fairley hadn’t missed the final 3 games of the season with injury, he looked poised to surpass Suh as Detroit’s highest rated defensive lineman. The only area he needs to clean up is his position leading 11 penalties, something that should improve with age. Fairley just turned 25 in January.
Before getting hurt, Fairley was on an absolute tear, making 5 starts in a row and recording 4 sacks, 4 hits, and 15 hurries, while holding up against the run. In 7 total starts, he had 4 sacks, 6 hits, and 19 hurries, a glimpse of what he can do in 2013 if he starts all of most of the team’s 16 games. He’s heading into his 3rd season in the season as an undisputed starter and with Cliff Avril gone as a free agent, the Lions will be counting on Fairley to pick up the slack. It would not surprise me at all if Fairley’s 2013 season is better than Suh’s and either way, the Lions have the league’s best 4-3 defensive tackle duo with the combination of Suh and Fairley, their 2010 and 2011 1st round picks.