Allen Park — Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford called the lively, always smiling Willie Young one of his favorite teammates Tuesday. Young, now with the Bears, enjoyed playing with Stafford, too, but believes the quarterback was just buttering him up.
"I could see why he might be trying to be nice to me right now because he's a little low on protection right now," the defensive end said during a teleconference. "I don't blame him for being nice right now."
After four years with the Lions, Young returns to Detroit on Thursday for a critical NFC North matchup at Ford Field. And after being unable to hit Stafford during countless practices, Young sees opportunities for himself and his fellow pass rushers to sack Stafford with right guard Larry Warford and possibly left tackle Riley Reiff out.
Stafford hopes Young doesn't have a chance to do his fishing sack celebration.
A seventh-round pick in 2010, Young regularly flashed potential during his four years in Detroit and had six sacks, three as a backup in 2011 and three as a starter in 2013. But in Chicago, Young has become a more consistent player and has eight sacks this year.
On Tuesday, Lions coach Jim Caldwell wouldn't answer a question about why the team didn't pursue Young more as a free agent during the offseason. Even though the Lions have the NFL's top scoring defense, second-year end Ziggy Ansah's 5 1/2 sacks are a team high.
Young said he had no idea how much the Lions pursued him last spring, but it likely wasn't much as the team prioritized wide receiver Golden Tate, running back Joique Bell and tight end Brandon Pettigrew. Young let his agent, Joel Segal, handle negotiations, and even though multiple teams were interested, Chicago's three-year, $9 million offer was the best.
"He was like, 'Hey, I got you a new deal, baby. You're going to Chicago,'" Young said. "And I was like, 'All right, cool.'"
And Young didn't have any hard feelings about Detroit not trying harder to re-sign him, in part because Ansah and Jason Jones were locked in as the starters.
"I didn't put much thought into it at all, actually," he said. "I just knew that regardless of what kind of scheme I was going to be in, I was going to be productive, I was going to be the best teammate I could be, and I was going to continue to take advantage of every opportunity."
Opportunities were scarce during Young's four seasons with the Lions. He was active for two games in his rookie season.
"From the time I got to Detroit, every position that I was in, every situation that I was in, it was bad," he said. "There was no hope for me when I signed with Detroit. There was no nothing for me. I was supposed to be a practice squad guy."
In 2011, though, Young earned playing time as a backup behind Kyle Vanden Bosch and Cliff Avril and showed promise with three sacks. He remained a backup the next year even though Vanden Bosch looked sluggish in his final season, but didn't have any sacks.
On the sideline, Young tried to learn as much as he could watching Vanden Bosch and veteran defensive tackle Corey Williams.
"It was tough, but if I could go back I wouldn't change anything," Young said. "All those times I was sitting on the bench — maybe not a lot of guys — but I think I'm one of the few that took advantage of those opportunities to be on the sideline."
The Lions re-signed Young to a one-year, $1.5 million deal in 2013, but that was after they signed Jones to a three-year, $9.5 million contract and before they drafted Ansah. Young was resigned to reserve duty until Jones suffered a season-ending knee injury Week 3, allowing him to start the final 13 games.
"I enjoyed it to the fullest," he said of his time in Detroit. "The guys that I was surrounded by were pretty cool. Jim Schwartz, that was my guy, man."
But now, Young is using all of that knowledge as a rival.
"He's one of the guys who's alive in the locker room," Bears coach Marc Trestman said. "He's been extremely positive and his work ethic has been exemplary on the field in terms of what he does day in and day out practicewise. He really leads — as enthusiastic as he is, an upbeat guy as he is — really his No. 1 leadership quality is the fact he does it by example out on the field and in the classroom."
Bears at Lions
Kickoff: 12:30 p.m. Thursday, Ford Field, Detroit
Records: Bears 5-6, Lions 7-4
Series: Chicago leads 96-67-5 (Detroit 21-19, Nov. 10, 2013)
Line: Lions by 6
Did you know? The Lions are 34-38-1 on Thanksgiving, 7-8 against the Bears.