2015 Detroit Lions Defensive Line: Asset or Liability

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Nick Fairley vs Tyrunn Walker

Aug 20, 2015; Landover, MD, USA; Washington Redskins quarterback Robert Griffin III (10) fumbles the ball after being hit by Detroit Lions defensive end Ezekiel Ansah (94) and Lions defensive end Tyrunn Walker (93) in the first quarter at FedEx Field. Mandatory Credit: Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

Though the Lions had invested a 1st round pick in another defensive tackle a year prior, it was Nick Fairley who became the team’s most reliable run defender over the course of his tenure in Detroit. While inconsistency became the word most associated with Nick Fairley’s stint in Detroit the great irony of his tenure was that he consistently graded out as the team’s top run interior run defender.

Players 2010 2011 2012 2013 2014
 Draft Pick -9.3 -8.0 -11.8 3.9 17.6
Nick Fairley N/A 1.1 6.3 -4.6 8.1

***Analytics Courtesy of Pro Football Focus***

Fairley’s former teammate was acutely aware of the contributions Fairley made to the Lions defense. In fact, he went on to suggest Fairley could have been the more talented player of the two.

Mike O’Hara records the conversation as thus:

"“I haven’t said this a lot or to many people more or less, but Nick is more athletically gifted than me and he has an opportunity to be better than me.”"

Unfortunately, Fairley never showed enough desire, productivity or availability to justify remaining in Detroit. In Detroit’s playoff seasons (2011 & 2014) Fairley missed six and eight games respectively. He averaged a paltry 14.5 combined tackles and 1 sack in each of those injury shortened seasons.

When Caldwell & Company assumed the reigns of leadership over the team in 2014 they started purging the roster of players who weren’t available enough to produce on the field. Oft-injured, but talented players like Chris Houston and Nate Burleson were cut due to persistent health concerns.

This off-season the Lions continued to proactively purge players from the team who didn’t show availability to justify their stay on the roster. Fan favorites like Ryan Broyles and Joseph Fauria joined Nick Fairley as players the team seemed not to trust to stay healthy enough to aid the franchise in any meaningful way.

Free from any further obligation to Detroit Fairley tested free agency. To his surprise, the market proved Lukewarm at best and Nick Fairley settled for a 1-year $5M “prove-it” deal.

Where Nick Fairley’s reputation for being lazy limited his opportunities this off-season Walker’s skill set and work ethic were highly coveted. As such, when the Saints opted not to re-sign Walker it created a feeding frenzy of sorts as a reported 18 teams showed interest in retaining his services.

Over the course of the preseason Walker performed so well his former team, the Saints, may find themselves rethinking the move. To this point Jeff Duncan, Columnist for the Times Picayune released the following message on Twitter:

This preseason PFF credits Walker with the 5th best run stop percentage among all qualifiers. Praise for Walker has been abundant with none more glowing than that spoken of by future Hall of Famer Haloti Ngata. Josh Katzenstein of the Detroit News captures Ngata’s thoughts on Walker as:

"“He’s a big guy, but he moves. He can move well and is powerful, explosive….“You can’t (help) but be impressed with what he’s done (and) how well he moves….”"

Walker may not have 1st round pedigree but his talent, work ethic and ability are second to none. The Lions have simple criteria in their players: play consistently within your abilities and be available. Walker has proven every bit as capable as Fairley as a player and has never missed a game due to injury in his career. The latter makes Walker a decided upgrade over Fairley who never seemed to play more than a handful of games at full strength each year.

Final Disposition: Key Upgrade

Next: George Johnson vs. Phillip Hunt