Nick Fairley began last season third on the defensive tackle depth chart behind
His season, unfortunately, ended prematurely on injured reserve after he suffered a shoulder injury in Green Bay in early December.
Therein lies the problem for the talented first-round pick in 2011. He’s missed nine games his first two seasons because of foot and shoulder injuries and has been less than 100 percent in countless others, primarily during his rookie season.
"Nick needs to be on the field for us," Detroit Lions head coach Jim Schwartz said at the NFL League Meetings in Phoenix last week. "We’re a better defense when Nick’s on the field for us. He made big plays last year, but finished the year on injured reserve. We need to get him to the point where he can play 16 (games) for us the way he plays eight for us every year."
It's those eight games that show why Fairley was the 13th-overall pick in 2011.
During the first quarter of a regular season matchup at New Orleans as a rookie, he had two tackles for loss, a sack and a quarterback hit against two Pro Bowl guards in Jahri Evans and Carl Nicks. He left the game in the second quarter after aggravating a foot injury.
Last year, over a five-game stretch that began Nov. 11 at Minnesota and ended when he suffered the shoulder injury at Green Bay, Fairley had four sacks, two forced fumbles and 23 tackles.
"He's an impact player. I think that you saw all the reasons that we drafted him," Schwartz said. "The tackles for losses, affecting the passing game, sacks, chase plays. He's really a fast guy, he can chase down screens, he can do all those things. So it's been more (about) availability for him."
The Lions are counting on Fairley being more available than ever this season with Williams still unsigned and Sammie Hill signing with the Titans in free agency.
The Lions also have to replace starting defensive ends Cliff Avril (signed with Seahawks) and Kyle Vanden Bosch, who was released last month in a salary cap move. The Lions will need Suh and Fairley to be on the field and dominant while the other pieces fall into place.
Fairley and Suh represent two of the team's last three first-round draft picks for the Lions, and when both are healthy and playing together, they are one of the best defensive tackle tandems in the league.
"His rookie year, we didn't need him as much because we had those other guys, so when he did get hurt we were able to really take our time," Schwartz said.
"But last year, particularly at the end of the year, we didn't have him on the field. We lost Corey Williams for most of the year, so there was more put on Nick's plate.
"We're going to rely on him even more this year."