Lions rookie Joseph Fauria had three touchdowns in last week's game against the Browns. (Daniel Mears / The Detroit News)
Allen Park ó Cary Conklin's initial reaction when he first saw Joseph Fauria on a football field was shock.
"I mean, this guy is so tall and his arms are so long," said Conklin, the former Redskins and 49ers quarterback who is presently in his fifth year as the Lions' west coast regional scout. "He's playing at another level above the rim. Vertically, he is never covered. I saw that and I saw what he did at UCLA; they used him similarly to how we're using him. They are splitting him out in the slot, splitting him out at end and throwing him a lot of fades.
"He's got these little 5-10, 5-11 corners on him and they can't even crawl up his arms. It shocks you the first time you see it. I was like, 'Man, this is an interesting guy.'"
This is the story of how Fauria, a touchdown-producing tight end who stands just a fingernail short of 6-foot-8, slipped through the draft and ended up with the Lions.
It began with Lance Newmark, the team's assistant director of college scouting and national scout, watching him play in UCLA's season-opener at Rice. Conklin saw him play the following week in Los Angeles against Nebraska.
UCLA scored 85 points in those two games; Fauria caught three touchdown passes.
Conklin and Newmark would see him a couple of more times throughout the year, taking in a couple of UCLA practices and the school's pro day.
"I just thought, man, this guy would be a heck of a red-zone weapon, just for starters," Conklin said.
From there, it went to Scott McEwen, the team's director of college scouting, who broke down and dissected hours of UCLA game film to present to the coaching staff.
"He had a huge redeeming quality with his size and hands and his touchdown production," offensive coordinator Scott Linehan said. "Thatís the first thing that jumps off the profile of a player. I just think our scouting department did a great job of evaluating him, giving us an opportunity to evaluate him.
"Where he was or wasnít on the draft board didnít mean anything to us; he was somebody we were hoping to get on our team."
Eventually, as the 2013 draft drew closer, head coach Jim Schwartz, Linehan, tight ends coach Bobby Johnson, general manager Martin Mayhew and assistant general manager Brian Xanders would all play a hand in the dramatic and nerve-wracking process of signing Fauria as an undrafted free agent just minutes after the draft ended.
"Looking back, it's a surprise he didn't get drafted in the sixth or seventh round, at least," Conklin said. "But hey, sometimes they slip through and sometimes they are a perfect fit for what you are doing. All the things added up for us."
He is who they thought he was
It is rare for undrafted rookies to make the 53-man roster ó let alone make the kind of contribution Fauria has thus far. He has seven catches, five of them for touchdowns. He has been the red-zone menace Conklin and Newmark envisioned.
"We got three live looks at him and by the end of the season, we were in consensus; we all saw the same thing," said Newmark, who has been with the Lions for 16 years. "It was really a team effort. We all agreed what he'd be for us. We all agreed this was a guy who could help us and as soon as he was there for us, we went and got him."
Newmark, like Conklin, was first taken by Fauria's size and his strong, sure hands. But he saw something else that he thought would be a good fit for the Lions.
"You saw how much fun he had playing the game," he said. "Those are the two things that stood out to me ó his ball skills and how much fun he had playing the game and how much energy he brought to the team.
"I was down on the field before the game and he just had so much energy. He's loose during the stretching and there is a smile on his face. He kept the energy up and then after he caught a touchdown pass, he was extremely excited. Having fun playing the game is never a bad thing."
Nobody is having more fun these days than the end zone-dancing Fauria, and it has had a contagious impact on the rest of the team.
Missing the combine
So why wasn't he drafted?
It's not like the Lions found a needle in a haystack here. Fauria scored 20 touchdowns in two years at a major, high-profile program. The Lions' scouts didn't discover him and they were hardly the only team that had him on their draft board.
But there were flaws. He isn't fast enough to be a full-fledged wide receiver in the NFL. He had, at best, an entry-level understanding of route running. Scouts had to look hard to find any evidence of his blocking skills.
He wasn't a guy who fit most NFL systems.
"As far as him not getting drafted, he didn't participate in the (NFL scouting) combine because he was injured," Newmark said. "The combine would have been a big deal for him because a lot of those drills would have really shown 32 decision-makers in the NFL what this guy was. Those drills are geared toward his strengths ó a lot of pass-catching stuff. Missing that opportunity really hurt him."
A lot of teams couldn't get past his blocking deficiencies. They couldn't see how a guy that tall could ever be a capable blocker.
"Blocking was one of his weak points but he really didn't do a lot of it," Conklin said. "They didn't use him in-line a lot. He didn't practice a lot in there. So I think he's real raw. But the surprising point, watching him through camp and watching him now, he's really improved.
"I think he's going to be able to do some of that because he is strong. Because he's so long, he has some leverage issues, but he's strong. I think he can hold up."
Reeling him in
The real drama came on the third day of the draft and Xanders, in his first draft with the Lions, played a big role in how they went about recruiting Fauria.
"Joe was in the conversation late in the draft," Conklin said. "But you know how it goes. Sometimes other positions trump you. They need a linebacker-special teams guy and there's a bunch of guys in that group."
The Lions' last four picks were receiver Corey Fuller (sixth round), running back Theo Riddick (sixth), tight end Michael Williams (seventh) and linebacker Brandon Hepburn (seventh).
"You never know with the draft," Newmark said. "You never know who's going to be there for you at the end. When he went undrafted, we were excited."
Newmark said the Lions targeted two undrafted players ó Fauria and offensive tackle LaAdrian Waddle. Both are on the team's 53-man roster.
"That was our plan and we took care of our plan," Newmark said. "We are really happy the way it turned out."
At the urging of Xanders, the Lions began a dialogue with Fauria in the middle rounds. They didn't wait for the end of the draft to start recruiting him. Scouts, position coaches and even Linehan were all in communication with Fauria throughout the final few rounds of the draft.
"(Fauria) was the top dog and we went after him," Conklin said. "I think we all feel really good about it. Just a lot has to go right to get him on your team. Everybody is competing for this guy. When that draft is over there's a lot of stuff going on, and on this one, everything lined up right for us."
When the draft ended and other teams were making their initial contact, Fauria already knew how badly the Lions wanted him. He knew exactly how his skills would fit the system. He knew the Lions provided the best opportunity for him to make an NFL roster.
"It starts with our college scouts on the road and everybody gets involved at the end," Schwartz said. "He was a guy that we targeted. We liked what he did in the passing game. We made a strong effort to get him right after the draft. It was a good combination of our college scouts and coaches all working together. We recruited him hard."
But this, as Schwartz has made abundantly clear all week, is just how the story began.
"Heís made a lot of plays since heís been here but heís got a long way to go," he said. "I donít want to put him in the Hall of Fame yet."