August 4, 2013 at 3:03 pm

Chris McCosky

If he stays healthy, Nick Fairley should be an All-Pro force for Lions

Allen Park — Man, I want to stand before you here, right now, and boldly proclaim I’ve seen the Lions’ next All-Pro defensive tackle and his name is Nick Fairley.

I want to tell you about the 20 pounds he lost in the six weeks between the end of mini-camp and the start of training camp and how quick and still powerful he’s looked the last two weeks. I want to tell you the havoc he and Ndamukong Suh are causing the interior offensive linemen in team drills.

I want to tell you that he gets it now. He understands what it takes mentally and what it demands physically to be a dominant and consistent performer at the NFL level. I want to tell you all the raves he’s getting from teammate and coaches.

Like this from defensive coordinator Gunther Cunningham:

“The other day, Tully (Stephen Tulloch) came off the field frustrated, I mean really frustrated. We had a run-play-action drill, I said ‘Tully what’s wrong.’ He said, ‘I can’t get my reads, Nick and (Ndamukong) Suh are screwing up every play that they run. I couldn’t get any reads; they’re knocking the crap out of everybody.’

“I was laughing because I saw it from the sideline. Going back to Suh and Nick playing together, everybody in the league is saying the same thing – look out.”

I want to tell you that Fairley is poised, finally, to be the star the Lions thought they drafted three years ago.

But ...

There’s always a but with these Lions, isn’t there?

If decades of futility have taught us nothing else, it has taught us to be very wary of trusting anything in Honolulu Blue and Silver that looks like it might be successful.

Just when you think something’s up, it’s down. A 10-6 “team on the rise” in 2011 becomes the 4-12 “same old Lions” in 2012. I’ve already been burned by naïve enthusiasm. It was right around this time last year I made the sage announcement that the Young guns — Willie Young and Titus Young — would enjoy breakout seasons in 2012.

How’d that work out for me?

Fool me once, as the saying goes. Nobody should be rushing to make any bold predictions about anybody or anything. The coaching staff seems to be taking the same wary approach.

'You're going to see something'

Anybody watching these practices can see how disruptive a force Fairley has been. He seems to be making one splash play after another. He and Suh were chasing ball carries some 50 and 60 yards down field on Saturday, ala Kyle Vanden Bosch.

He was so hard to block on Saturday, he came away with his practice jersey virtually shredding from all the clutching and grabbing.

Yet, Cunningham and coach Jim Schwartz continually temper their praise with phrases like, “let’s hope he stays on this track,” or “ability isn’t his problem, it’s been availability.”

When Cunningham was asked on Friday if the light had finally gone on for Fairley, the first thing he said was, “Some players come in and start like a bat-out-of-hell and make the splash, but then nobody knows what happened to them.”

Immediately, he talked about Fairley’s injury issues his first two seasons.

“Jim and I were talking and Jim said that (Fairley) played four or five really good games for us,” Cunningham said. “I don’t think Nick Fairley has played at a 100-percent level since he has been here because of all the nagging injuries he has had.

“If Nick is 100 percent, you’re going to see something.”

Always that if.

“Nick’s had a really good beginning to camp,” Schwartz said on Saturday. “He made an outstanding play today, a great chase play. He’s been available for practice each day. He’s been rushing well. He’s been playing the run well. We’re really looking forward to what he can do in there this year. We still have a long way to go, but it’s been very encouraging to see what he can do.

“We always knew what he could do, but there’s just going to have to be a consistent time on the field. That’s been the thing in the past.”

Fairley, to his credit, fully understands that part of it. His inability to stay on the field for a full season frustrates him, maybe even angers him. Certainly it motivates him.

He’s only had seven starts in two seasons. He’s posted 6.5 sacks in that time, but four of them came in a five-game stretch last season.

“I haven’t really finished a season, yet this is going on my third year,” he said Saturday, talking to the media for the first time since camp opened. “That’s one of my big goals, to make it through all 16 games this year.”

'Everybody's goal is to dominate'

That’s what the 20-pound weight loss was about. He cut out fast food and fried food and he maintained his cardio regimen over the break. Defensive line coaches Kris Kocurek and Jim Washburn have harped on him daily about maintaining his conditioning. His weight room regimen has been intensified, even during camp.

He said he played at 315 to 320 pounds last season and he was heavier than that at the end of mini-camp. Right now, he’s hovering between 306 and 310.

“Everybody’s goal is to dominate and be at the top of their position,” he said. “We come out every day working hard as a group, and me and (Suh), we’re working on our craft together.”

Last year at this time he was answering questions about his legal troubles in Mobile, Ala. This year, he is answering questions about perhaps being part of the best defensive tackle tandem in the game.

That’s a pretty big leap in a year, though not completely unprecedented for him. He wasn’t an immediate star at Auburn, either. He had to feel his way for a bit before he burst onto the scene in that national championship season of 2010.

I asked him Saturday if he feels right now like he did before that 2010 season, that he was ready to break out.

“Kinda sorta,” he said. “I would say so. Coming in, like you said, my first year at Auburn I was kind of figuring things out and then the next thing you know, next year, bam, it happened. So it took my first two years (in the NFL), kind of figuring things out, third year, hopefully, break out.”

You want to believe him. You want to believe what you are seeing in these practices is real and will translate over a full 16-game season. But it’s hard to do that with this team. So, it’s probably best not to make any proclamations or predictions.

It may be a whole lot of fun watching Fairley and Suh create their own particular brand of malfeasance on the football field, but let’s just see what happens.

chris.mccosky@detroitnews.com

twitter.com/cmccosky

Defensive linemen Willie Young, Ndamukong Suh, Nick Fairley (far right) and Braylon Broughton joke around before the start of practice Saturday. / Daniel Mears/Detroit News
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