Allen Park — The 2010 NFL draft was absolutely loaded with talent. Seven of the first 18 picks — Ndamukong Suh, Gerald McCoy, Eric Berry, Earl Thomas, Jason Pierre-Paul, Mike Iupati and Maurkice Pouncey — have been first-team All-Pro at least once.
All-Pro tight ends Rob Gronkowski and Jimmy Graham went in the second and third round, respectively. NaVorro Bowman, a three-time All-Pro linebacker, was a third-round steal, and Geno Atkins, an All-Pro defensive tackle, was an even better bargain in the fourth round.
But none of those guys can claim to be as recognizable as Suh, an endorsement darling who’s made his name on the field with a nasty streak abhorred — and to an extent, envied — by opponents but cherished by his Lions teammates.
“Strong, fast, quick, athletic, smart — he’s got everything,” Lions center Dominic Raiola said.
As good as Suh is, he thinks there could be an even better version of him on the Lions roster. Nick Fairley, the 13th overall pick in 2011, has a chance to be better, Suh said, because he’s “more athletically gifted.”
But as the Lions approach the 2014 season, there’s a chance it could be the final year for both Suh and Fairley in Detroit — a duo they drafted in back-to-back years hoping to solidify the interior of their defensive line for the long term. Both players will become unrestricted free agents next year.
As a two-time All-Pro at the peak of his prime, Suh will fetch massive contract offers on the open market, though the Lions will do everything possible to keep him.
“It’s a business,” Lions defensive end Jason Jones said. “That’s how it is. Suh’s going to do what’s best for him.”
Fairley, meanwhile, will have to prove himself this season for the Lions to keep him. General manager Martin Mayhew rejected the low-risk fifth-year option on Fairley’s rookie contract, saying, “I don't see him as a $5 million player.” If Fairley plays up to his potential, he’ll be worth far more than that, but after he gained back the weight he lost this offseason and was demoted to the second-team defense in favor of C.J. Mosley, the contract decision looks like a shrewd move.
No matter what happens next offseason, the Lions need Suh and Fairley to play well in order to contend for the NFC North title this year.
“For us to be good, they need to be good, and they know that,” Raiola said.
Fifth-round pick Caraun Reid is the only defensive tackle the Lions have under contract after this season. If Fairley doesn’t show his potential on a consistent basis, he would conceivably be replaceable by Reid or a free agent, possibly Mosley if the Lions re-sign him.
Filling Suh’s role would be much more difficult. He’s the second-best player on the team behind Calvin Johnson, the game’s best wide receiver, and a leader in the locker room because of his tireless work ethic.
“He turns into a different guy out there, man,” Jones said of Suh. “He’s the type of dude that wants to do everything right and perfect. In practice, he gets mad in individuals if he gets one step wrong or this wrong. Seeing that attention to detail — he’s in the weight room right now. That hard work rubs off on guys.”
New Lions defensive coordinator Teryl Austin said it didn’t take long to see why Suh is such a great player.
“He’s a true professional in every sense of the word,” Austin said.
Both Suh and Fairley make their mark in practice on a daily basis. Interior offensive lineman Rodney Austin said he has to be perfect in his technique to block either tackle but making good blocks against them gives him confidence facing opponents.
“You have to be on your P’s and Q’s going against guys like that or they’ll embarrass you,” Austin said.
Last year the Lions ranked sixth in the NFL in run defense, allowing just 99.8 yards per game, largely because of Suh and Fairley.
“Sometimes playing behind them is kind of hard because you have a certain gap as a linebacker, but they get in there and they’re tossing guys around, and it all gets distorted,” Tahir Whitehead said.
As good as the Lions’ run defense was, their pass rush did not measure up. They ranked 28th in the NFL with 33 sacks.
Suh did his part last year with 72 pressures, according to Pro Football Focus, second to only McCoy’s 80. Fairley ranked eighth with 41 pressures, but there were too many games in which he was neutralized.
“He’s going to do good this year,” Jones said of Fairley. “I don’t want to comment on anything negative about him. Everybody goes through things, and we have the coaching staff and the people around him to help him out. His spirits aren’t down. I guarantee he’s going to come out and be the best player he could be this year.”