Defensive tackle Nick Fairley executes a drill during Tuesday's practice session. The Lions hope they lit a fire under the defensive tackle by not picking up the fifth-year option on his contract. (Daniel Mears / Detroit News)
Allen Park — The first two were the cornerstones, and if they don’t hold up their end of a very expensive bargain, this whole thing is going to come crashing down, sooner or later.
Yet, while most of the offseason focus with the Lions centers on Matthew Stafford and Ndamukong Suh, it’s easy — too easy, in fact — to overlook the importance of some of general manager Martin Mayhew’s other first-round picks.
Among them, the two defensive linemen Mayhew drafted with the intention of building a dominant front four: Nick Fairley and Ziggy Ansah.
Ansah, who led all rookies with eight sacks last season, has been a bystander this spring as the Lions began working on the field under a new coaching staff. He underwent shoulder surgery in February, but should be ready for training camp.
Fairley, meanwhile, was back this week after taking time off following surgery to help treat sleep apnea. Adenoids removed, he says he’s already feeling the difference — better rest, more energy — and had everyone raving about his slimmed-down look at Tuesday’s workout.
Fairley says he has lost nearly 30 pounds, weighing in now between 290 and 295 — a figure he hasn’t seen since the scouting combine in 2011. He credits an improved diet for much of that, cutting out the thrice-weekly fast-food meals he was consuming — “Burger King, McDonald’s, I was on that heavy,” he said — as his weight ballooned and his performance suffered last winter.
“I didn’t feel comfortable with myself,” Fairley said. “My body was getting tired. I just felt like if I got down to a lighter weight I’d be leaner, meaner and ready to go.”
Shape up or else
He’ll never be lean, exactly, and the real challenge will be the weigh-ins in August and beyond. But if he means it — and that always has been the question with Fairley, drafted 13th overall after a breakout junior season at Auburn — then the Lions might finally have something to lean on.
Even if it’s just for this season. Because Mayhew announced in March at the NFL owners meetings — unsolicited — the Lions wouldn’t be picking up the fifth-year team option on Fairley’s rookie contract.
It was a calculated move, in words and deed, designed to light a fire under Fairley, whose poor conditioning and sporadic production were compounded by injury problems his first few seasons in Detroit.
“I have to ask myself, ‘Is he a $5.5 million player right now?’ ” Mayhew said at the time. “There are some performances where he is, and some performances where he’s not. I think it’s going to be an incentive for him to have an outstanding season, and that’s what I want more than anything else.”
Fairley, for his part, says he was caught off guard by the decision. But his agent accentuated the positive — it gives him a shot at a second contract and free agency a year early — and after digesting the news, Fairley says, “It was like, ‘OK, I see where we’re going with this.’ … It motivates me.”
That’s the idea, of course.
Fairley arguably has more athletic ability than Suh, the All-Pro tackle he lines up next to on the Lions defensive front. (“He’s a phenomenal talent,” Mayhew says. “This guy can be whatever he wants to be.”) But even while posting career highs with six sacks and nine tackles for loss in 15 games last season, he was neither reliable nor consistent on a week-to-week basis.
While Suh takes flak for his all-business approach, Fairley’s problem is the exact opposite. Which is why Mayhew did what he did, effectively saying shape up or ship out.
“Me and Martin talk a lot, actually,” Fairley said. “He calls me up to his office, we sit down, we have talks. But he really wants me to play like that first-round draft pick that they drafted three years ago. So that’s where we’re at. That’s where we stand on that.”
And this is where the Lions have to stand up and be counted on, with Suh and Fairley wreaking havoc inside and Ansah leading the charge off the edge.
New defensive coordinator Teryl Austin’s scheme promises more blitzing, particularly with the addition of rookie Kyle Van Noy at the strongside linebacker position. But the Lions know they have to get a better return on their up-front investment. With three first-round picks on the defensive line — Suh’s the oldest at 27 — backed by a still suspect secondary, this team can’t afford to finish 28th in sacks the way it did a year ago.
Ansah, who declined an interview request Tuesday, flashed his potential as a rookie, cleaning up several of the messes Suh made in opposing backfields and providing some strong run defense.
Now, will he become the double-digit sack producer the Lions envisioned when they drafted him No. 5 overall last year? That’s certainly the plan. But standing around and watching this spring — he’ll be a bystander for next week’s final minicamp, too — is far from ideal for his development.
“He’s going to have some catching up to do,” Austin acknowledged. “But I believe he’s a bright guy. And he’s been here the whole time, so he’s getting it.”
Fairley insists he is, too, for what it’s worth.
If they’re both right, it could be worth plenty. If not, well, just ask the last coaching staff how costly unfulfilled promise can be.