Lions waiting on Nick Fairley's breakout

August, 23, 2012
8/23/12
10:30
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Defensive tackle Nick Fairley arrived at training camp amid as much anticipation as any player on the Detroit Lions' roster. As we discussed in the offseason, Fairley was healthy for the first time in his NFL career. He had added some 18 pounds during intensive rehabilitation workouts and given the Lions reason to believe he would break out as an elite player in 2012.

Here's the best thing we can say about that hope: Midway through the preseason, Fairley hasn't provided much to support it. He has three tackles and one silly personal foul penalty in two games, but more concerning are the ambivalent (at best) and critical (at worst) comments coming from the team's coaching staff.

[+] EnlargeNick Fairey
Mitch Stringer/US PresswireFormer first-round pick Nick Fairley has shown the Lions improved conditioning, but little production this preseason.
During my CampTour'12 visit to Lions camp, I kind of naively asked coach Jim Schwartz to discuss the extent of the progress Fairley had presumably made. I was surprised by his answer: "I don't want to read too much into practice. He's running well. He's strong. He's still developing in our scheme. This is a very important preseason to evaluate him. Last year, even when he was playing with us, he was never 100 percent. He is now, and this will be a good preseason for him to show that."

That was before the start of the preseason, which helps explain why defensive coordinator Gunther Cunningham told reporters Wednesday that while Fairley has "all the tools to be a very good player," he needs to "grow up fast and be consistent." Cunningham implied that Fairley hasn't played hard on every snap during the preseason, and said: "In that position, you can't have a part-time guy, and I'm talking about through the game, because if the offensive line smells blood, they're going to go get him."

Wednesday, Schwartz said that Fairley "just needs to play more reps" but added: "Every time that we've tried to get him on the field for extended periods of time he hasn't been able to stay out there. He's done a good job of his conditioning. He's worked hard. He has ran well. He just needs to be on the field more."

We should consider some context here. Fairley fell in the 2011 draft in part because of maturity concerns. He was arrested twice in the offseason and faces a likely NFL suspension during the regular season. I understand why the Lions would be inclined to issue some public tough love rather than continue a campaign to anoint him the next Ndamukong Suh.

But if there were ever a time for Fairley to produce a signature game, even if it's in a meaningless preseason affair, it will be Saturday night at the Oakland Raiders. We still have every reason to believe there is a great player somewhere inside of Nick Fairley. But as the regular season approaches quickly, it would be nice to see some extended evidence of it.

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