Allen Park — Lions defensive tackle Nick Fairley stood at his locker smiling Wednesday, answering questions about his recent demotion with a surprisingly cavalier attitude.
He admitted to gaining weight since training camp, up to 315 pounds despite thinking his ideal weight is 305. He didn’t think the idea he’s not one of the team’s best four pass rushers as a slight.
And even though C.J. Mosley has played better and more consistently this summer, part of the reason for the demotion last week, Fairley still thinks he will be a starter this season.
“My plans? Yes,” he said, adding he has to "continue to bust my butt" to leapfrog Mosley.
In his first media address since the demotion, Fairley said all the right things — even with the indifference — about wanting to improve and help the Lions win this season.
“I’m a teammate,” he said. “I’m here to help this team win, and I’m trying to be the best teammate I can.”
Ultimately, though, the Lions will rely heavily on their defensive line to create pressure to help a suspect secondary, and Fairley’s performance will be paramount because of his abundant potential.
After this season, Fairley, a first-round pick in 2011, will become an unrestricted free agent, and he said he doesn’t know how his recent demotion will impact the Lions’ desire to keep him.
“I want to stay here in Detroit,” he said.
Fairley said he’s comfortable playing at 315 pounds, but it’s clearly heavier than the Lions would like. Fairley corrected himself after initially saying his eating habits have been out of control recently.
“Just eating. Probably that’s it — for real,” he said. “I would say my eating habits got (away from me) within these past two weeks. That’s all.”
First-year defensive coordinator Teryl Austin called Fairley a “super talented” player and said he’s “on track” to provide what the team needs at that position. The problem, though, is that after being off track during training camp, Fairley has more work to do.
“What went into the decision was the fact that C.J. was playing really well, and at the time, (Fairley) wasn’t,” Austin said. “Since that time, Nick’s done a good job. He’s gotten better, he’s practiced better and we still need Nick to play well for us this year.
“At this point, we’re still pushing Nick, and he’s starting to push. And he’s doing some better things, and I would expect that he’s going to play better.”
Even if Fairley can regain his starting job, there’s a good chance he won’t be a three-down player. Defensive end Jason Jones has experience playing on the interior, and Austin said the goal will be to have the four best pass rushers on the field for third downs, presumably Jones, tackle Ndamukong Suh, end Ziggy Ansah and another end.
In an ideal world, the Lions wouldn’t have to push Fairley as they have, but that’s a big part of coaching, Austin said.
“Our job is to try to get our guys to play well no matter what it takes,” he said. “Not everybody’s going to be a guy that’s a self-starter, work over the top all the time.”
Fairley has been an enigma since entering the NFL. He was a backup his rookie season and didn’t start in 2012 until Corey Williams suffered a knee injury. Fairley finished the season with a five-game stretch that included 23 tackles, four sacks and two forced fumbles, and there were reasons to think he could finally reach his potential in 2013.
“From my point of view, I think Nick’s been consistent, going out there and working hard,” Suh said Wednesday. “I haven’t said this to many people, but Nick is more athletically gifted than me. And he has an opportunity to be better than me, and that’s what I want to see out of him."
Last season Fairley played 15 games, but was inconsistent throughout the season. He also ballooned above 320 pounds, though he managed to stay mostly healthy.
During the offseason, general manager Martin Mayhew said the Lions would not sign the fifth-year option on Fairley’s rookie contract, pointing to those inconsistencies and saying he needed to “reposition” some of his weight.
Fairley returned to the offseason program this year at 295 pounds, he said, after undergoing sleep apnea surgery and said the contract decision provided extra motivation to be consistent in 2014.
“With big guys, for the most part, you always have an issue with trying to get a weight that they’re comfortable with and getting into a routine,” Austin said. “Sometimes when you change routines — whatever your summer routine is to come here — you’ll have some ups and downs, and I think that’s where Nick was. And he’s starting to figure out where he needs to be, and he’s working toward that goal.”
Coach Jim Caldwell and Austin have also taken a proactive approach, hoping to get Fairley in shape for a season in which the defensive line needs to be the linchpin for the defense.
“Like we do with all our guys, we talk to them, we tell them exactly where they stand, so there’s no gray area,” Austin said. “They don’t feel like they’re being blindsided, so he understood (the demotion). And since that time, he’s been working really hard to try to get back to being a starter because that’s what he’s used to.”