Showing posts with label the defensive line. Show all posts
Showing posts with label the defensive line. Show all posts

Cliff Avril’s Contract Demands: is His Production Worth the Money?

>> 5.25.2012

Cliff Avril is holding out. According to an NFL.com report, Avril is seeking about $42 million dollars over four years, with about half of that guaranteed. Per that same report, the Lions are looking to pay him closer to $8M per year, and there the two sides sit.

Is Avril worth that kind of money?

Allow me to quote the defensive end Old Mother Hubbard:

Bottom Line: Cliff Avril, in this system, plays like a top ten defensive end. If he is not re-signed, his production and playmaking ability will not be easily replaced—and his production and playmaking ability is essential to the success of the defense. His re-signing must be the Lions’ top priority.

The answer, for the Lions, is “yes.” Avril is (at this point in the offseason) irreplaceable, and they would need to replace him with a top-flight pass rusher in the 2013 offseason. But is he producing like the kind of ends already making that kind of cash? Let's look at some analytics:

image
  Overall Rush Cov. Run Pen. PRP +EPA +WPA SpY SB $M/PRP
Calais Campbell 34.1 23.5 7 1 2.6 6.6 54.4 2.17 $11.0 $15.0 $1.67
Jared Allen 35 18.9 3.5 12.6 0 9.8 80.5 2.06 $12.2 $15.5 $1.25
Cliff Avril 6.6 11 5.5 -2.5 -7.4 9.6 45.10 1.45 $10.0 - $1.04
Julius Peppers 28.3 19.5 2 6.3 0.5 10.3 52.1 1.35 $14.0 $6.5 $1.36
Mario Williams ('10) 18.3 18.5 0 0.5 -0.7 10.8 29.8 1.13 $16.7 $19.0 $1.54
Trent Cole 40.4 35.2 0.5 10.3 -5.6 14.9 32.30 1.00 $9.9 $8.0 $0.66
Dwight Freeney 5.8 15.5 0 -7.5 -2.2 9.4 27.5 0.85 $12.0 $15.0 $1.28

The chart above is the usual set of Old Mother Hubbard data, with a few new additions:

  • Pro Football Focus Overall: The player’s overall grade, as measured by PFF.
  • Pro Football Focus Rush: The player’s PFF pass-rush grade.
  • Pro Football Focus Coverage: The player’s PFF coverage grade.
  • Pro Football Focus Run: The player’s PFF run-stopping grade.
  • Pro Football Focus Penalty: The player’s PFF grade for incurring penalties (snap count is accounted for).
  • Pro Football Focus PRP: PFF's pass-rush rate stat. Weighted amount of sacks, QB hits, and QB pressures divided by charted pass rush attempts.
  • Advanced NFL Stats +EPA: The amount of positive-impact production the player had, as measured by Advanced NFL Stats.
  • Advanced NFL Stats +WPA: The impact the player had on his team’s chances to win games. The table and chart are sorted by this stat.
  • SpY: Salary per Year. The player’s total contract value, divided by contract length. Data from Spotrac.com.
  • SB: The player’s signing bonus.
  • $M/PRP: The number of salary millions paid per year, per point of PRP.

    First, a reminder: this is a selection of the highest-paid and most-productive defensive ends in football. The idea is to see if Avril’s production is in their elite company, not to see if he’s good or not—we know he’s very good.

    Second, caveats: Calais Campbell is a 3-4 DE, so he gets a lot more tackles than a typical 4-3 pass rusher. This explains his lackluster PRP, but outstanding PFF grades and solid +EPA. Mario Williams’ data is from 2010, the last year he played as a 4-3 rush end.

    The chart is a little helter-skelter but you should be able to see Cliff’s line quite clearly. As before, his PFF Overall grade is very low relative to the other DEs. He’s right at about the NFL average. This is mostly due to his 11 assessed penalties; Avril’s play is quite good but he was flagged constantly.

    Avril’s pass rush grades were better, above average, but still well below NFL leader Trent Cole, and DEs like Jared Allen and Mario Williams. Remember, this PFF pass grade is an accumulated, normalized measure of “how good” every down’s performance was.

    Avril led the 4-3 DEs in PFF Coverage grades, trailing only Calais Campbell (which, again, “good coverage” from a 3-4 DE is a different standard than “good coverage” from a 4-3 DE). Against the run, Avril was comparable to Williams and Campbell, but well behind Allen and Cole, both of whom were in the top ten run-stoppers.

    Avril had the second-worst penalty grade of any 4-3 DE last year.

    Here's where it gets interesting. Pass Rush Productivity is a much more refined version of what I've been doing, dividing snap counts by sacks-plus-hits-plus-pressures. PFF is putting together a weighted total of sacks, hits and pressure then dividing pass rush attempts by that figure. This gives a true picture of how often these pass rushers are getting to the quarterback.

    Avril’s is a very respectable 9.6. That’s tied for 10th-best in the NFL with Baltimore’s Terrell Suggs and New England’s Andre Carter. In fact, it’s just behind Allen’s 9.8. Trent Cole led the NFL with a ridiculous 14.9. For the record, Kyle Vanden Bosch registered a 27th-best 7.3 . . . as I hinted before, that’s half as effective per-snap as Cole.

    Ready to have your mind blown? When I drop the qualifying snap percentage from its default 50% to 25%, The Great Willie Young is 3rd in the NFL with 13.7. Lawrence Jackson comes in 26th with 8.8.

    When it comes to +EPA, Jared Allen laps the field. His positive production was 2nd in the NFL with 80.5. Campbell and Julius Peppers nearly tie for second in this group, and Avril’s right behind them with 45.1. Cole, who’s been blowing all these metrics away so far, has only 32.3 +EPA.

    In terms of +WPA, Avril’s 1.45 was 7th-best in the NFL. Campbell’s 2.17 was 2nd-best, and Allen’s 2.06 was 3rd-best. Again, Cole’s monster productivity only netted him 1.00 +WPA; either his massive pressure didn’t come when the Eagles needed it, or the Eagles were going to lose whether he got there or not. Maybe a little of both? Either way, Avril’s solidly above-average production clearly made a big difference in the Lions’ bottom line.

    So we know Avril’s a very good defensive end, arguably one of the ten best 4-3 DEs in the NFL. We also know he’s worth more to the Lions specifically, right now, than he is in a “relative to the rest of the league” way. But look at those salary figures.

    If the Lions gave Avril the $10M/year he’s asking for, they’d be paying less relative to his pass rush production than any of the measured DEs, save Trent Cole—who had the most productive year of anyone in the NFL while playing on a rookie contract.

    To justify this money, Avril must cut down on the penalties without cutting down on his production. But unlike Corey Williams, whose production was partly due to snap timing, Avril's penalties are often post-play; the kind of thing he should be able to eliminate by keeping his head.

    But outside of that, given his knowledge of the system, his production within the system, and that production’s importance to the system, Avril’s clearly worth $10 milion a year to the Lions.

  • Read more...

    Old Mother Hubbard: The Defensive Ends

    >> 2.02.2012

    Pantry

    From last year’s Old Mother Hubbarding of the Lions defensive ends:

    Cliff Avril was pigeonholed by most as a 3-4 ROLB, and I’m certain he could shine in that role. But he’s developed into the fast, athletic 4-3 rush end Rod Marinelli thought he could be. Avril will never be a 270-plus-pound, two-way monster—but he’s already an impact defender, top-flite pass rusher, and a huge part of this defense going forward. Signing this RFA to a long-term deal must be a top priority.

    Kyle Vanden Bosch is the ultimate leader, a consummate professional—and as a player, the yang to Cliff Avril’s yin. Had he stayed healthy, he would have had seven sacks and fifteen QB hits, more than acceptable standalone production, besides the undeniable halo effect. Unfortunately, he’s 32, and recovering from a major neck injury. The Lions need to find a starting, impact, two-way end to replace him by the 2012 season.

    Lawrence Jackson produced like an above-average starter in heavy rotation, and fron Week 10 on was one of the better 4-3 DEs in the game. I’ll hold off on anointing him the starter of the future for now, because I’d like to see more consistency—but there’s no doubt he’d be the perfect physical fit for the void KVB will eventually leave.

    Willie Young is a developmental prospect with a very lean frame, a long way to go, and an undeniable knack for playing football. I hope he has a place on the roster for next season.

    And then, the shopping list:

    The Lions will need to find an impact two-way defensive end, ready to replace KVB as a starter by the 2012 season. Lawrence Jackson has the potential to be that end. Cliff Avril is an RFA who must be re-signed to a long-term deal. The Lions may look for a developmental speed-first end behind Avril, especially if Willie Young does not take major strides in the offseason.

    It's important to restate the design goals of the Lions defensive line: to get consistent, excellent pressure from the without assist from the blitz. To have a pair of bookend DEs rushing from wide alignments, fast enough to turn the corner and strong enough to set the edge against runs and screens. To have two defensive tackles who can rush the passer up the middle of the pocket, one of whom can also collapse the running lane between himself and the nine-technique DE. Most importantly, to have depth all across the line, making sure the above design requirements are fulfilled for four quarters each of sixteen (-plus) games.

    Now, that in mind, let’s look at the data:

    detroit_lions_defensive_ends_2011_grades

    For the second straight year, Philadelphia’s Trent Cole is the highest overall PFF-graded 4-3 DE. With the #1 overall pass-rush grade of +40.4, and the 11th-best run-stopping grade at +10.3, Cole fulfilled his responsibilities in the Eagles’ own wide-9 alignment perfectly. His two-way dominance was so complete, he kept his top overall mark despite being called for seven penalties in 640 snaps. Interestingly, Cole’s 1.00 +WPA is only ranked 23rd, and his 32.3 +EPA is 27th. For all his consistently positive play, Cole didn’t help the Eagles win much. May have something to do with the rest of the defense behind him.

    Bringing up the rear is the New York Giants’ Dave Tollefson, whose –9.4 rush grade and –5.5 run-stopping grade put him at the bottom. His 0.36 and 10.0 +WPA and +EPA rank him 79th and 86th, respectively, out of 125 defensive ends ranked by Advanced NFL Stats.

    Important note: Pro Football Focus separates linemen into DT/NTs, 4-3 DEs, and 3-4 DEs. Advanced NFL Stats has one bucket each for DTs and DEs. The two sites do not always agree on who is what.

    Cliff Avril is another example of why I added+WPA and +EPA to these radar charts. When you add up all his positive, negative, and nothing-in-particular plays, he’s an average NFL defensive end. His +6.6 overall PFF grade almost exactly matches the NFL average of +6.5. That includes a pretty heavy ding for 11 assessed penalties, but a major boost from his linebacker-like coverage skills (+5.5). His pass rush grade is solid, ranked 19th overall at +11, but confusingly low for a guy who had 12 sacks, 8 hits, and 37 pressures on 822 snaps (one of those pass rush events per 14.7 snaps, 15th-best rate in the NFL).

    For comparison, Trent Cole had 11 sacks, 11 QB hits, and 44 pressures on 640 snaps, one every 9.55 snaps (2nd-best). For further comparison, Jared Allen had 24 sacks, 8 QB hits, and 34 pressures on 1044 snaps—one every 15.8 snaps. Just putting that out there.

    So from looking at just the PFF grades and stats, we’d mark Avril down as an average overall defensive end, pretty good at rushing the passer but otherwise mediocre. Then, we look at the +WPA and +EPA and whoa.

    Avril’s +EPA is an excellent 45.1, 11th-best in the NFL; that’s well ahead of Cole’s 32.3 (Jason Pierre-Paul’s is tops at 83.4).  His +WPA is an outstanding 7th overall, at +1.45. The discrepancy comes from his impact plays: 4 passes defensed, 6 forced fumbles, 7 TFLs, and an interception. In terms of +WPA, it’s his knack for making big plays at the right times. He helped the Lions’ win-loss bottom line 45% more than Trent Cole helped the Eagles’.

    Just as with the defensive tackles, we see Lions defensive ends—as a rule—make big plays when they matter most, far out of proportion to the rest of their production. Avril, though, takes that to the extreme. Keep in mind, he’s doing it from the left side, too: going against bigger/stronger right tackles and often in the quarterback’s field of vision. Imagine if he were working the blind side . . .

    Bottom Line: Cliff Avril, in this system, plays like a top ten defensive end. If he is not re-signed, his production and playmaking ability will not be easily replaced—and his production and playmaking ability is essential to the success of the defense. His re-signing must be the Lions’ top priority.

    Willie Young, a.k.a. The Great Willie Young, might indeed be the son of a panther god. His +11.7 overall PFF grade would be the highest of any Lions DE, if his 259 snaps weren’t just a few too few to qualify. His +10.2 pass rush grade is just behind Avril’s +11.0, and his run-stopping grade is far superior, +3.7 to –2.5. In a huge surprise, the not-as-spindly-as-he-used-to-be Young’s run defense was better than all but Lawrence Jackson’s.

    Again, this is on limited snaps—and that cuts both ways. Young makes fantastic plays whenever he’s in the game, but he’s in the game most often when the situation is ripe for him to make plays. His 3 sacks, 4 hits, and 19 pressures put his snaps-per-pass-rush at 9.96 which would be third-best in the NFL if he’d played just thirty or so more snaps.

    I believe that’s at least part of Trent Cole’s story above: he played 182 fewer snaps than Cliff Avril, and I’d be willing to bet a good chunk of “negative” plays were eliminated because of it. It’s a lot easier to be great against the run when you only have to do it on 2nd- and 3rd-and-long . . .

    Still, Young’s +11.5 EPA and +0.47 +WPA speak to just how effective he was when he was in. The average +WPA for qualifying DEs was 0.61, meaning that in just 259 snaps Willie Young helped the Lions win almost as much as an average starter. Nobody put much stock in a sub-260-pound all-legs-and-no-torso seventh rounder developing into a vital contributor, but Young’s already there in just his second year. How much better can he get?

    Bottom Line: Willie Young has proven his worth as a rotational end, and should be a big part of the picture for 2012, his make-or-break year. If he can shoulder an increased workload without his rate stats falling off, he’ll be every bit the player Cliff Avril has been. That is an enormous “if.”

    Lawrence Jackson had an outstanding 2011, producing at the same level as Avril and KVB when he got reps. The natural big-bodied run-stuffer Avril isn’t, he seemed destined to take over on the left side as Avril transitioned to the right rush end spot.

    Instead, Jackson played almost exclusively on the right side, in relief of KVB. He struggled against Tampa Bay, but had strongly positive games in Weeks 2-5. His season crescendoed on Monday Night Football, with a +3.4 overall grade (1 sack, 1 hit, 2 pressures on just 31 snaps). After that game, however, Jackson had three flat games before Week 10—where he graded out very well and suffered a deep thigh bruise that would bench him until Week 16.

    You can’t help but feel like Jackson missed his opportunity to stake his claim as the Lions’ third-now-and-second-soon DE. However, Jackson’s 18.4 +EPA is a very positive sign; he nearly matched the NFL average of 21.07 with just 341 snaps. His 0.71 +WPA is an even better one: with less than half the snaps of a typical starting DE to work with, Lo-Jack contributed more to the Lions’ winning games than some other teams’ starters . . . unfortunately, that includes the Lions’ Kyle Vanden Bosch.

    Bottom Line: Lawrence Jackson had a chance to prove to the Lions they were set at this position for years to come. Instead, his deep thigh bruise—and midseason lull—leaves us no closer to knowing if he’ll be ready to step in for KVB as a full-time starter when the time comes. However, he also flashed enough of that Secret Superstar form to prove he can play as well as anyone in the NFL when he’s “on.” Like Willie Young, 2012 will be his make-or-break year.

    Kyle Vanden Bosch had a fantastic bounceback year, right? With 8 sacks, 6 QB hits, and 26 pressures, this was his best statistical year since the glory days of 2008. Unfortunately, he had a beefy 777-snap workload, meaning he only generated pass rush on one of every 19.4 snaps—35th-best in the NFL and below the 19.0 NFL average.

    Vanden Bosch's -11.3 overall PFF grade is absolutely mortifying; it's the fourth-worst in the NFL. He was graded at –1.9 in the pass rush, definitely below the NFL average of +2.5. His run-stopping grade, however, was through the basement: –7.9, worse than everyone but St. Louis’s Chris Long. We saw this time and time again in the games: Vanden Bosch overpursuing like a maniac, and opposing teams scheming to take advantage.

    Vanden Bosch improved in this area throughout the season. He got dinged with strong negative run-defense grades in Weeks 2, 3, 4, 6, and 7, but only once more after that. Unfortunately, that coincided with a huge dropoff in his pass-rush productivity. He had only one negative pass rush grade in the first ten games, then was in the red for Weeks 12, 13, 15, and 16.

    KVB is the only Lion DE not to add Win Probability far beyond what his snap count and production would project: Despite those 8 sacks, he almost exactly met the NFL average with 0.58 +WPA. His 26.30 +EPA is solidly above-average, but that just highlights the fact that he got it done more often when it didn’t matter than when it did.

    Bottom Line: Kyle Vanden Bosch’s time as a premier two-way defensive end is over. His heart, desire, toughness, and leadership are unquestionable, but he’s simply not getting it done as well or as frequently as the rest of the defensive ends. Without finding the fountain of youth, he cannot start and play the majority of every game in 2012 or the defense will suffer for it.

    SHOPPING LIST: The Detroit Lions have some serious decisions to make at the Defensive End position, and have little information to go on. Kyle Vanden Bosch must recover his youthful form or play a reduced role in 2012. Cliff Avril is a proven game-changer but not under contract. Willie Young and Lawrence Jackson have played extremely well in limited time but are not proven full-time performers.

    If the Lions have complete faith in Young, Jackson, or both they are set for defensive ends. If not, they need to acquire a defensive end who can step in and play at least as well as Vanden Bosch, if not better, in 2012.

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    The Lions Running Game: Success and Lack Thereof

    >> 11.18.2011

    First: for those of you who don’t typically check out my Bleacher Report stuff, you should probably look at today’s Matthew Stafford film breakdown. I took a good look at Stafford’s pocket presence, footwork, and mechanics against the Bears.

    Okay, now. A few weeks ago I discussed the Lions success running the football on first and second down. Several of you had been asking for me to update the piece in the aftermath of the Broncos game, but Chase Stuart of Smart Football went and did a leaguewide rushing success analysis.

    This is pretty much brilliant, and exactly what I’d planned to do for the Lions. Just as with Pro Football Focus, though, I am happy to stand on the shoulders of giants (or even metaphorically tall regular folks who put in the time and effort that I can’t).

    First, Stuart broke it down by individual runner. He sorted the table by total number of successful runs—but since the Lions don’t run nearly as often as other teams, I knew that would skew things. I re-sorted the table by success rate, and here’s what I got:

      Name Tm Car Succ Succ% RshYd YPC
    1 Danny Ware NYG 28 18 0.64 91 3.3
    2 Jacquizz Rodgers ATL 32 20 0.63 137 4.3
    3 DeMarco Murray DAL 97 59 0.61 646 6.7
    4 Peyton Hillis CLE 59 35 0.59 216 3.7
    5 Derrick Ward HOU 29 17 0.59 88 3
    61 Jahvid Best DET 82 34 0.41 388 4.7
    62 Maurice Morris DET 41 17 0.41 172 4.2
    63 Chris Johnson TEN 146 59 0.4 496 3.4
    64 Montario Hardesty CLE 75 29 0.39 245 3.3
    65 Deji Karim JAX 54 20 0.37 131 2.4
    66 Thomas Jones KAN 67 24 0.36 199 3
    67 Javon Ringer TEN 44 16 0.36 147 3.3

    Okay, that’s the top five, and bottom seven, rushers by success rate. The first thing you’ll notice is that the Lions’ primary runners to date have identical success rates, despite big disparities in carries, yards, and yards-per-carry. In the Smart Football piece, Stuart singled out Jahvid Best as an example of a runner with deceptively high yards-per-carry: he has the numbers of a back who’s been highly successful when he hasn’t been.

    However, he correctly notes that the Lions’ run blocking is atrocious. That Maurice Morris—a different back with different skill sets—has the exact same success rate indicates that the problem isn’t the Lions running backs, it’s the Lions’ running game.

    You see the same issue with Tennessee: Chris Johnson and Javon Ringer are almost identically terrible, despite being different runners with different tools. What proves the rule, though, is Cleveland’s backs: Peyton Hills is the 4th-most-successful back, getting the job done 63% of the time with just 3.7 YpC—and his running mate Montario Hardesty is only successful 39% of the time, with 3.3 YpC.

    Stuart helpfully included the table of team rushing success, and this time he broke it down by rate as well. Atop the list were New Orleans, Buffalo, and New England, with success rates in the mid-50s. At the bottom? Detroit and Tennessee, with success rates of 40.7% and 39.6%, respectively.

    So the Lions aren’t moving the chains on the ground. Worse yet, without Best there’s no threat of the home run, either. Opposing defenses can key on the pass—and that’s putting an awful lot of pressure on Matthew Stafford, the receivers, and the pass protection. They’re talented enough to overcome that pressure, but they have to bring their A game against every non-pushover foe.

    I'm thrilled that Stuart included the defensive rushing success rate, as well, because it's an entirely different story: the Lions have the 4th-most successful rushing defense in the NFL. When considering down and distance, the Lions are allowing only 42.2% of carries to succeed. Seattle, San Francisco, and Atlanta are ahead of them with 39.5%, 41.4%, and 41.5% respectively.

    The Lions have allowed 944 yards, far more than either of those three teams (771, 516, 676) at a far higher per-carry rate, 4.7 YpC (3.5, 3.3, 3.8). Considering that Stuart eliminated all third- and fourth-and-long carries (so tailbacks wouldn’t be punished for calling the Incredibly Surprising Draw on 3rd-and-forever), this is really impressive stuff. Though the Lions run defense is giving up the occasional long gainer, they’re otherwise completely shutting opponents down—mostly without help from the defensive line.

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    In Praise of the Wide Nine, Lions D-Line, & Back Seven

    >> 10.14.2011

    Back when Nick Fairley suddenly showed up to training camp in a walking boot, I wrote a piece called “Nick Injured? It’s Fairley Insignificant.” In it I said not to PANIC:

    The Lions’ defensive line must keep rolling waves, so they’ll need Fairley back—but not the way they needed Ndamukong Suh last season. Suh played a thousand snaps, nearly every single down the defense was on the field last season. Fairley was never going to carry that big of a load even if he showed up to camp in the best shape of his life, dominated every rep, and didn’t suffer so much as a paper cut. He’s an extremely talented player and he seems like a nice, fun-loving guy—but he doesn’t need to be an All-Pro for the Lions to have a good defense this year.

    After five games, the Lions’ defense is fourth-best in the NFL, allowing just 17.8 points per game. The talent, skill, and depth of the defensive line has allowed the Lions to contain the run and snuff out the pass. They have 12 sacks, tied for 11th-best in the league—with  nearly zero blitzing. The Lions’ Pro Football Focus team Pass Rush grade is +18.9, fifth-best. Clearly, the line has been fine with or without the #13 overall pick.

    Early  during the Monday Night game, Commenter Matt nudged me and said, “Dude, Fairley’s in.” I looked and saw that indeed, #98 was out there, rotating in for a snap or two. It continued throughout the night; Fairley seamlessly blended with Ndamukong Suh and Corey Williams and Sammie Hill and Andre Fluellen.

    Fairley got great penetration, fought off blocks, got in on some piles, and per Pro Football Focus had three quarterback pressures. He received a +2.4 overall PFF grade (+1.0 run defense, +1.3 pass rush, +0.1 penalty), amazing work for an 18-snap workload. The impact wasn’t seen but it was felt, as the Lions defensive line constantly rotated players in and out, staying fresh and keeping the pressure at a rolling boil for sixty minutes.

    As I'm sure you saw earlier in the week, ESPN Stats & Information found that Cutler was under duress for 42.1% of his throws Monday Night, the highest for any single quarterback in any single game so far this year. Cutler performed incredibly well considering the pressure; any other quarterback might have gone down seven or eight times—or at least, thrown a lot more incompletions or interceptions.

    But it’s more than just the defensive line.

    Philadelphia fans and media alike are screaming for the Eagles to scrap the “wide nine,” a defensive system wherein the blindside pass-rushing defensive end lines up far outside their opposing offensive tackle, and the rest of the line shifts around to obtain maximum penetration and pass rush without blitzing. Adam Caplan of Scout.com explains:

    Does all this sound familiar? It should, because it’s the exact same system the Lions use.

    There’s a problem inherent in widening out that defensive line, then coaching them to aggressively penetrate. Trap blocks, counters, and end-arounds become extremely effective. Teams intent on running the ball will succeed. In a recent Detroit News article, Jim Schwartz explained how the Lions deal with this:

    "We're vulnerable to trap blocks," Schwartz said. "You tell guys to get up field and rush the passer, they're going to be susceptible to the trap. But our linebackers are expected to play that. We don't want our guys slowing down and playing traps. Suh is an instinctive guy. He's seen those things before. If we are getting off the line the way we are supposed to, our linebackers should fill those (gaps) up."

    Stephen Tulloch, Justin Durant, DeAndre Levy, and Bobby Carpenter have combined to do just that. Though opposing running backs are shredding the Lions’ defensive line for 4.78 YpC, the Lions have allowed only one rushing touchdown. Opposing running backs are getting through t the second level, but no further.

    On the passing side of the ball, the Lions are one of the best defenses in the NFL. According to one of my favorite pass-defense metrics, Adjusted Net Yards per Attempt, the Lions’ pass defense is tied with the New York Jets for second-best in the NFL. Pro Football Focus grades the Lions pass rush fifth,  and pass coverage No. 1.

    In Detroit, the “wide nine” system is working perfectly. The strength, speed, depth and alignment of the Lions’ defensive line is putting heat on quarterbacks with almost no blitzing. The burden of stopping the run is almost entirely on the linebackers’ shoulders—and they’re getting the job done. The Eagles’ linebackers aren’t, and Nnamdi Asomugha is having to explain to reporters that contrary to appearances they do know how to tackle.

    The back seven is also working in concert to take away quarterbacks’ safety blankets underneath, prevent being burned deep, jumping the medium routes to pick passes off and get the ball back to the offense. Where the Eagles gazillion-dollar “dream team” secondary is getting gashed on the ground and through the air, the Lions hand-picked cast of role players and reclamation projects is the best back seven in the NFL.

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    Ndamukong Suh Delivers Hits, & Subway’s Avocadoes

    >> 7.01.2011

    Avocadoes are a deliciously difficult food. No matter how carefully I try to peel and slice or dice them, I screw up. I resign myself to mashing them into paste, or spreading them on something. Fortunately, they’re quite tasty like that—and thanks to Ndamukong Suh, I can get an avocado fix at Subway without any prep work, failure, or associated shame.

    Ndamukong Suh delivers fresh avocadoes to Subwaythis basket was actually quite heavy

    Yesterday, Suh showed up at a Detroit Subway with a basket full of 130-some avocadoes and an appetite. Some media types were on hand; I was lucky enough to be one of them. We got to see Suh make some sandwiches, including a turkey-and-avocado footlong for himself:

    Ndamukong Suh eats a turkey and avocado Subway sandwichhe was really, really, really, really really hungry

    According to Wikipedia, the word “avocado” has an interesting etymology:

    The word 'avocado' comes from the Mexican Spanish aguacate which in turn comes from the Nahuatl word ahuácatl (ballsack, a reference to the shape of the fruit).

    Fittingly, Ndamukong answered our questions with preternatural confidence. Last time I spoke with Suh at a Subway event, his approach was humble, and his words were, too. This time, his demeanor hadn’t changed—he was quiet, respectful, and selfless with his time. But his words were bold, and lent credibility by his performance on the field. He wasn’t a college kid trying to make an impression, but a top-flight pro.

    He was asked how the Lions would change their approach this season, to handle the pressure of increased expectations and excitement from fans and media. "In my opinion we want to approach it the same exact way as we did the year before,” he said. “We could easily have won a lot of the games we were in, it’s just a matter of learning how to finish. I think those last four games kind of showed that turn, where we were learning how to finish games."

    In his rookie year, he achieved everything a rookie DT could possibly achieve, so I asked him how he could build on it—and what his individual goals are. "I'm no longer a rookie, I'm a sophomore now,” he said. “As a rookie, you want to win Rookie of the Year, be that All-Rookie. Now it's time to be that All-Sophomore.” He wouldn’t identify any individual awards or numbers, though. “Whatever my team does, if my team does as we want to, I’ll achieve my individual goals. I don’t have separate goals that are just for me, they’re always intertwined with team goals. That’s selfish, for a player to have individual goals like that."

    Someone asked him to put a number to it—how many wins the Lions are looking for in the 2011 season. Suh didn’t hesitate: “16-0,” he said. There was a pause, and an awkward laugh. The questioner asked, “No, but seriously—” and Suh cut him off. “Why can’t I be serious about that? It’s a simple fact that I’m going to go into every single game intending to win.” He talked about the number of close calls the Lions had in 2010, and highlighted the Chicago Robbery:  “It doesn’t always go your way; things aren’t always in your hands. But you control what you control, and have the mindset that you’re going to win, though sometimes it’s not going to work out that way. The Patriots, when they went 16-0, I’m sure they had the mindset of winning that first game, taking it game by game, and then they ended up 16-0.”

    Though he said he’d spent most of the year to this point completing his rehab and getting his body prepared for camp, I asked him if there was a specific aspect of his game he was focused on improving this offseason. “Every year is an opportunity to get better, to learn new techniques, and allow yourself to continually be able to beat offensive linemen. They change the way they play, we change the way we play to adapt and adjust and make it more difficult for them to block us.” Suh described the battle between offensive and defensive linemen as a constant cycle of adaptation, and evolution. “For me primarily, I'm going to work on my feet and my hands. Those are the two biggest things I beat people with. As long as I’m sharp with those, the schematics will help you beat [offensive linemen].”

    I asked him if he was excited to see what Gunther had been drawing up during the offseason, what different ways he’d be deployed, and he said “Oh yeah.” His eyes lit up as he started talking about collaborating with Gun on how to maximize his tools. “The great thing about him, everyone may see him as someone where it’s only his way or the highway. But if you really get to know him, he lets you run with your imagination . . ." He stopped, leaned back, and grinned. "I’m not going say any more with that," he said, drawing a big laugh. "But there were things we did last season that I had some input on."

    Continuing about Gunther, Suh said “He’s a great guy, and he’s all ears—especially if you understand the fundamentals of what he wants with his defense. Just as the offense throws a million different shifts at you, we want to throw a million different shifts at them. Just like we have to think about what they’re doing, vice versa, we want them thinking about what we’re going to do.”

    As Suh went back to his sandwich, I let his words percolate. In the midst of the most withering football drought of all time, listening to Suh’s excitement about the coming season was incredibly refreshing. He couldn’t be more ready to get back on the field and winning games, and all the talk about schematic creativity and forcing offenses to react had me salivating. It all made me incredibly hungry for Lions football. For the moment, though, Suh and I will be tiding ourselves over with avocadoes.



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    Meet the Cubs: Nick Fairley

    >> 6.14.2011

    Detroit Lions and Auburn Tigers DT Nick Fairley (90) celebrates with the BCS trophy after the Auburn Tigers defeat the Oregon Ducks 22-19 in the BCS Championship Game at University of Phoenix Stadium in Glendale, AZ.

    1.13 (13): Nick Fairley, DT, Auburn

    I’ve never been to any of the campuses of Copiah-Lincoln Community College. I’ve never stepped foot on their practice field in the heat of August. I have no idea if its facilities are those of a polished football factory, or of a rural high school. Is the grass lush and green, or dusty and scraggly? Is a cajun waterboy at the ready with a filtered backpack, or is there a garden hose with holes in it zip-tied to a chain link fence? I don’t know. I do know that Wesson, Mississippi is a long way from the bright lights of SEC football—and that’s where a huge, cat-quick pass-rusher from Mobile named Nick Fairley expected to be. Fairley told an Alabama TV station:

    Juco, it kept me humble. Coming out of high school, everybody is going to the D-I school with a big guy, so everybody knows you. They are going into the big time D-I . . . juco was a great eye-opener and got me level headed and ready to go. So when I got to Auburn, I was ready.

    For many players, it’s a long and winding road to the NFL. But for Nick Fairley, it was a long and winding road just from high school to the college of his choice. He was rated as just 3-star DE/DT prospect by both Scout.com and Rivals.com, though my suspicion is that had more to do with his lack of grades than a lack of potential. Clearly, a 6’-4,” 257-pound pass rusher with multiple SEC offers is more than a middle-of-the-road prospect.

    Despite strong mutual interest with Auburn, and a verbal commitment, Fairley wasn’t academically able to attend Auburn. After graduating from Lillie B. Williamson high school, he went straight to Copiah-Lincoln, a JUCO which has fed several top prospects to Auburn. After that redshirt year, Fairley terrorized the JUCO competition: he racked up 63 tackles (9.0 per game), 9 TFL (1.3 per game), 28 QB hits (4.0 per game), and 7 sacks (1.0 per game). He also notched two fumble recoveries, one forced fumble, one blocked kick and seven pass breakups.

    Throughout, Fairley kept his eyes on the prize; he never wavered in his commitment to Auburn. By the time he was ready to sign with a DI program, Fairley was up to 295 pounds; Rivals maintained Fairley’s 3-star status, but Scout.com re-ranked Nick as a four-star JUCO recruit. Fairley was thrilled to re-commit:

    "I'm very excited to re-commit to Auburn," said Fairley. "I've been waiting on this for a long time, since I went to junior college. Auburn is where I wanted to go out of high school so I decided to stick with them.

    "I'm ready to go to Auburn, work hard, get my grades and make an impact."

    . . . except it didn't quite work out that way. After recommitting in May of 2008, the Tigers’ 2008 season ended with the resignation of head coach Tommy Tuberville. Having spent a year and a half at Cop-Lin with visions of War Eagles dancing in his head, he didn’t re-open his recruiting. Fairley signed his NLI to attend Auburn on December 17th. However, in January it was discovered that one of his correspondence classes wasn’t completed by the deadline, so Nick had to enroll in late May—missing the spring practices of his sophomore year.

    When asked about his unwavering commitment to the Tigers, even after a staff change and the academic goofup, Fairley pointed to the presence of “Coach Rock,” former Auburn standout Tracy Rocker:

    “When he was at Auburn, he won the Outland and Lombardi trophies. Not too many defensive linemen have done that. He must know something. He's also been to the (NFL) so he knows what it takes. I would rather get coached by someone that's been there and done it."

    Despite missing spring ball—thus being behind his teammates in knowledge of the defense and scheme—Fairley started the Tigers’ first game of 2009, against Louisiana Tech.  He had five tackles, a fumble recovery, half a TFL, and 2 QB hits--but also looked every bit as raw as he was. Coach Gene Chizik:

    “Being a defensive lineman and starting your first game, things get hairy down there,” Chizik said. “That’s a whole different world down there on the defensive line because it’s so physical. It’s just the nature of the position. Nick played high a little bit, but overall really tried to play physical and tried to play with some effort. I think he falls into the category of we’ve got a long way to go to get him where he needs to be. I think he’s got a chance down the road to be a really good player.”

    Fairley would play in all 13 games—and get one more start—his sophomore year. Playing mostly as a reserve, Fairley still notched 28 total tackles, 3.5 TFL, and 1.5 sacks. Impressively, his first career sack (for minus 14 yards) came against Georgia—and he blocked a PAT against Tennessee, maintaining a 13-6 lead right before halftime. He repeated the five-solo-tackle performance of his first game in the last game that season, roughing up Northwestern in a nailbiter of an Outback Bowl.

    At this point, it seems kind of ridiculous to recap Fairley’s junior season at Auburn. I’ll just copy and paste from his official bio:

    CAREER -- Won 2010 Lombardi Trophy, becoming second player in school history to win the award joining his position coach, Tracy Rocker who won the award in 1988 ... Set AU single-season record of 24.0 TFL's in 2010, setting record against South Carolina in SEC Championship Game ... Also set AU single-season record with 11.5 sacks during junior season, setting record against Oregon in BCS National Championship Game ... Earned Defensive MVP honors of BCS National Championship Game vs. Oregon.

    2010 -- Lombardi Award winner (nation's best lineman) ... Nagurski Award finalist ... Associated Press SEC Defensive Player of the Year ... FWAA All-America Team ... Walter Camp All-America Team ... Sporting News First-Team All-America ... SI.com First-Team All-America ... Associated Press First-Team All-America ... CBSSports.com First-Team All-America ... Rivals.com First-Team All-America ... Coaches' First-Team All-SEC ... Associated Press Unanimous First-Team All-SEC ... Phil Steele First-Team All-SEC ... ESPN.com All-SEC ... Outland Trophy semi-finalist ... CBSSports.com Midseason All-America ... Phil Steele's Midseason All-America First-Team ... SEC Defensive Lineman of the Week (11/26-27) ... SEC Defensive Lineman of the Week (10/23) ... SEC Defensive Lineman of the Week (10/16) ... SEC Defensive Lineman of the Week (10/2) ... SEC Defensive Player of the Week (9/13) ... Started all 14 games and totaled 60 tackles with 24.0 TFL's and 11.5 sacks ... Had at least 1.0 TFL in 12 of 14 games and a sack in eight games ... 1st in SEC / 12th in NCAA in sacks (11.5) and 1st in TFL's (3rd in NCAA) (24.0) .

    Look, the dude ate people, okay? Nick Fairley subsisted on the flesh, souls, and hearts of opposing offensive linemen. He looked like a man amongst boys, even at the heart of an SEC defense. So, what changed from his sophomore year? What transformed him from a raw, promising prospect to a world-devourer? Fairley told the LA Times that, again, DL coach Tracy Rocker played a huge role:

    Tracy Rocker, Auburn's defensive line coach, gets the Tiger's share of credit for fine-tuning Fairley's considerable skill set.

    "Coach Rocker flipped a switch to turn on," Fairley said.

    This is the most intriguing side of Nick Fairley. For all of the talk of “questions” and “immaturity,” for all of the whispers about his work ethic and his commitment, he has unwavering respect for anyone who’s done it themselves. Tracy Rocker accomplished exactly what Nick Fairley wanted to accomplish, and Rocker was able to get Fairley to play at a dominant level. If only the Lions had someone who could command Fairley’s respect and attention . . .

    On whether it concerns him that he'll be part of a three- or four-man rotation at defensive tackle:

    "Aww man, playing with Suh is going to be an honor. That guy was the defensive rookie of the year, so to be able to play next to him… I can't wait to get in and pick his brain for the things he did his rookie year."

    He did get a chance to speak with Suh shortly thereafter:

    On having talked to Suh: “I talked to Suh today and he gave me some great advice; I talked to Kyle Vanden Bosch and all of them guys. I’m really just ready to go and I want to pick their brain … They’re going to give me some great advice so I can come in as a rookie and know what to do.”

    On what Suh said to him: “He basically was like, ‘Man, you’ve got be ready to come to work; they’re going to push you and try to get the best out of you, but you’re going to have fun.’ He said that’s one thing that they do here is: have fun and work hard. So I’m ready to come here and get things together.”

    I firmly believe that Nick Fairley is walking into the best possible situation. Not only is the Lions’ defensive line one of the most talented position groups in the game, it’s got the strongest culture. Kyle Vanden Bosch sets the bar for effort, intensity, and consistency as high as it will go. Ndamukong Suh is a physical freak and firebreathing monster on the field, a gentle giant with rare understanding off it. Lawrence Jackson is a brilliant young man with a poet’s soul—and a first-round pick’s tools and production. Cliff Avril plays with joy and abandon, but has relentlessly built his body and game up from a third-round OLB ‘tweeter to a prototypical 4-3 rush end. Corey Williams is a naturally big-bodied man who really, really, really can’t wait to get at the quarterback.

    Leading them all is position coach Kris Kocurek, whose approach and creativity has drawn raves from players, coaches, and observers alike. Working closely with Kocurek is Gunther Cunningham, who combines a well-earned rep for exacting standards and profane tirades with a genuine love for his players and colleagues deeper than could ever let on in public (even though he lets on in public, too). On top of all that, of course, is Jim Schwartz, The Grandmaster, who drew consistently excellent performance out of notoriously inconsistent talents like Albert Haynesworth and Jevon Kearse.

    I don’t want to wax too poetic here—but the Lions have built a truly special unit, a group of players and coaches who will define the identity of this team for years to come. If Nick Fairley wants to get where he says he wants to go, all he’ll have to do is show up in Allen Park and follow his teammates’ lead. If he can stay relentlessly committed to Auburn through the two-year odyssey in between graduating high school and stepping onto campus, he can do that. Frankly, I don’t think his teammates will let him fail. But of course, I’ve written enough about the Lions’ current linemen. What are the experts saying about Nick Fairley?

    • Sideline Scouting:

      Positives: Very solid athlete... Good size... Very solid pass rusher... Long arms... Uses his hands well... Quick off the ball... Disruptive... Gets in the backfield... Plays with good leverage... Reasonably good strength... Solid power... Can get penetration... Very solid bull rush... Solid strength at the point of attack... Shoots gaps well... Good arsenal of pass rush moves... Great swim move... Can split and slice through some double teams... Does a good job shedding single blockers and making plays on the ball... Good flexibility and body control... Plays the run well... Does a nice job in pursuit... Actively chases the ball... Makes plays in the backfield versus the run... Stays low... Looks comfortable dropping into short coverage... Good recognition skills... High motor... Plays with intensity... Mean streak... Played through an injured shoulder toward the end of the 2010 season... Tremendous upside... Finished third in the FBS with 24 tackles for loss in 2010... Schematic versatility, could also get looks as 3-4 LDE... Compares to Warren Sapp, Marcus Stroud.

      Negatives: Former junior college transfer who started just two games prior to the 2010 season... Can wear down a bit as the game progresses... Will play down to his opponent... Needs to improve lower body strength... Can be engulfed at the point of attack... Questionable work habits... Has taken some undisciplined penalties, and some cheap shots at quarterbacks... Measured in at the combine over an inch shorter and nine pounds lighter than his listed weight, could fall a bit if viewed only as a three-technique tackle who would only appeal to 4-3 teams... Reportedly missed his flight to the combine, missed a team meeting there, and was late for a team interview at his pro day.

    • CBS Sports:

      Pass rush: Explosive initial burst off the snap. Good flexibility and balance to "get skinny" and penetrate gaps. Uses his hands well to slap away blockers' attempts to get their hands on him. Possesses a rare combination of long arms and quick feet, helping him avoid cut blocks. Good swim move. Locates the ball quickly and has the lateral agility to redirect. Good short-area closing burst. Good effort in pursuit. Surprising speed for a man of his size.

      Run defense: Relies on his quickness to penetrate gaps and make plays behind the line of scrimmage more than his strength to hold up at the point of attack. Long, relatively thin limbed for the position and can be knocked off the ball due to his lack of an ideal anchor. Good flexibility to twist through double-teams. Locates the ball quickly and pursues well laterally.

      Explosion: Quick burst to penetrate gaps. Can shock his opponent with his quickness, strong initial punch and quick hands to disengage. Has an explosive burst to close when he sees a playmaking opportunity and can make the eye-popping collision without needing much space to gather momentum.

      Strength: Good, but not elite strength, especially in his lower body. Has a tendency to come up at the snap and can be pushed back because of it. Possesses very good natural strength, however, including in his core as he can twist through double teams. Very good hand strength to rip through blocks. Good strength for the pull-down and trip-up tackle.

      Tackling: Possesses a good closing burst and brings his hips to supply the big hit. Good strength for the drag tackle. Willing to lay out and has good hand-eye coordination to trip up the ballcarrier running away from him.

      Intangibles: Former high school basketball player who shows surprisingly quick feet. An ascending talent, but is nonetheless labeled as a player with some true bust potential, as there are concerns about his work ethic. Carries a little bit of extra weight around his middle and is more "country" strong than weight-room defined. Has developed a reputation as a dirty player; repeatedly flagged in 2010 for late hits and there have been instances when he has speared ballcarriers with his helmet, banged into their lower legs purposely and pushed off downed players to lift himself up. One of nine siblings.

    • SI.com gave him a 3.22, their fourth-highest overall grade:

      Positives: Game-impacting defensive lineman whose star is on the rise. Displays great movement skills and an explosive burst to the action. Quickly changes direction and effectively makes plays down the line or chases the action in backside pursuit. Plays with good pad level, fires off the snap with a great first step, and shoots through the gaps up the field. Fast off the edge, effective in pursuit, and makes plays in every direction. Constantly doubled by the opposition yet remains a game changer.

      Negatives: Must improve his overall strength. Marginal hand use and displays limited moves getting off blocks. Lacks pure power and can be controlled by single blocker. Mostly a first move lineman that must beat opponents off the snap. Not known as a hard worker in practice.

      Analysis: Fairley comes off a career year in which he started the season hot and never let up through Auburn's national title game. He possesses the skills and athleticism to be used as a defensive tackle or two-gap end and has an enormous amount of upside. Fairley will be very productive at the next level if he improves the details of his game and works hard on and off the field.

    • Pro Football Weekly:

      Positives: Very quick off the ball and disruptive. Has explosive hips and is a violent, head-snapping tackler. Good balance and agility. Has long arms and quick, active hands and knows how to keep defenders off his frame. Times the snap well, throws his hips in the hole and wins one-on-one matchups. Can split the double team. Excellent closing speed — smells blood. Rips off blocks and continually shows up behind the line of scrimmage. Flashed the ability to dominate and take over games, as he did late against LSU and Alabama. Plays with a mean streak and continually seeks to punish quarterbacks (knocked three out of games as a junior) and agitate blockers.

      Negatives: Plays too upright with an inconsistent pad level and stalls at the line of scrimmage if he does not win at the snap. Does not play with pop in his hands. Cannot dig his heels in the ground against the double-team — was pancaked vs. Georgia OG Clint Boling. Not a glass eater ideally suited to occupy blocks. Tends to freelance, lose gap integrity and, at times, lose the ball. Not smart or disciplined and brain freezes show up in his play. Lacks power and bulk strength. Is only a one-year producer and has underachiever tendencies — loafs on the backside and takes plays off. Lacks stamina. Plays dirty, seeks cheap shots and has been flagged for foolish, unsportsmanlike penalties. Needs to be pushed and is not a self starter.

      Summary: An explosive, finesse three-technique, Fairley could make your draft or break your heart. Showed he could be a dominating force for a national championship team, took over games and could be unblockable in the interior of a "40" front if he stays motivated and uses good technique. However, he will require a very nuanced, demanding positional coach and might need to be limited to 40 snaps per game to maximize his talent. The more highly he is drafted, the greater the likelihood that he will bust, as a big pay day easily could sap his motivation. Compares to Saints 2003 sixth-overall pick Johnathan Sullivan (a bust) and could fizzle out of the league as fast as he arrives if he enters a non-challenging, unstructured environment. Has boom-or-bust potential.

    • New Era Scouting:

      Pass rush: Fairley is the premier one-gap defensive tackle in this year’s class due to his ability shoot the gap and get after the passer. Fairley finished 2010 with 12 sacks, including three in a standout performance against LSU. Most of his big plays come off the swim move. Has quick hands to get his arm over the blocker. Closes in a hurry and with aggression.

      Pursuit: Is a player who is almost always on the move toward the ball carrier. Has the athleticism to move all around the line. Despite being somewhat limited in experience, Fairley shows good run/pass recognition. When Fairley plays with a lot of effort, he can move all around the field to make a tackle. But some question if Fairley always gives full effort on every play. As sensational as he is on some plays, Fairley can be completely non-existent on others. It’s an issue that Auburn head coach Gene Chizik brought up early in the season. Fairley showed better effort toward the end the season, however.

      Quickness: For player of his size, Fairley has a great burst off the snap. Most of his game is centered around his quickness off the ball. Played basketball in high school and it shows in his foot speed. People will always compare Fairley to Ndamukong Suh and Gerald McCoy and in the quickness category, he’s right there with them. Run defend: Is a long-armed defender who can be disruptive in the run game. Even where the run isn’t coming right at him, Fairley can impact the run game simply by reaching his arms out and rerouting the ball carrier. Does a lot of his work against the run against single blockers. Fairley doesn’t always do well against multiple blockers. Still, he can be an asset against the run by taking up multiple blockers.

      Strength: Doesn’t have the kind of strength where he can beat double teams on a consistent basis. Looks like he can get stronger in his lower body. Can get pushed bak too often. Has a frame to add 20 pounds without it having a negative impact on his game.

      Tackling: Fairley is a scary tackler. Every time he has room to make a hit, it’s an explosive one. If football doesn’t work for Fairley, his tackling shows he clearly has a future in pro wrestling. He frequently liked to suplex players. Several of Fairley’s tackles could get him fined in the NFL, so it will be interesting to see if he’ll continue his tackling technique at the next level.

      Technique: Shows good hand fighting. Uses his hands well to keep blockers out of his pads. Has long arms, which is beneficial to his technique. Doesn’t take false steps that get him out of position.

    Is it time? Yes, it's time. It’s more than time. It’s way past time to find out if Nick Fairley will be a boom, or a bust. It’s time to find out if he’ll be the next Warren Sapp or the next Johnathan Sullivan. It’s time to consult the One True Oracle of NFL Success: YouTube highlight reels!

    First up, an absolute gem. Here's a high school reel that's just phenomenal. There's no spot shadowing, but just look for the defensive end that's significantly bigger than the defensive tackles, and running faster than the linebackers. He's #90. The best part is around 1:25 when he beats the RT and sacks the quarterback before an unblocked linebacker can get there. No, wait--the BEST part is the MUSIC:

    Here's a nice little clip that shows an awesome spin/swim combo sequence at 0:12:

    Here's a short film entitled "Fairley Nasty," an ode to Fairley's biggest hits and dirtiest plays throughout his two-year career at Auburn. Of special note are the explosion SF/X laid on top of Ludacris' "Move, B*tch," and Papa Roach's "Last Resort" (!):

    Here's Aaron Aloysius not letting me down, providing really nice cutups of Fairley vs. Georgia. This is some proper film right here, and you can see just how frequently, and how hard, he hit A.J. Green that day. I like at 0:33, where the takes on a double-team, anchors, and makes the tackle. Also note 1:50 where he's chop blocked, and shrugs it off.

    What stands out to me is Fairley’s body type. Despite being a shade taller and several pounds lighter than Suh, Fairley’s build is completely the opposite. Suh’s upper body is jawdroppingly massive; I’ve said many times that his shoulders are the size of entire hams. From the front of Suh’s chest to the back of his back seems like a distance of nearly three feet. He’s very, very lean through the core but has reasonably thick arms and legs. Fairley, meanwhile, has shockingly thin shoulders and arms for his size; most of his weight is through the middle: he’s big in the britches, thick-thighed, and—while not sloppy fat—has a little fuel tank for his sack machine.

    Despite these similar sizes hung on totally different frames, Fairley’s game is almost identical to Suh’s. Similar great first step, similar penetration, similar inside/outside edge rushing ability. He’s not “bad” against the run, but he’s not often going to drop anchor and eat space like Grady Jackson. He plays with an obvious mean streak, and will likely draw some after-the-whistle penalties for crossing the line. He’s too upright at times, and sometimes vacates his lane for the sake of penetration.

    Immediately, Fairley projects as a three-tech, just like Suh. However, Suh is a finished product, physically. The only thing he can develop on his frame is adding the gut he doesn’t have—and that would do more harm than good. Fairley, as Rob Rang said above, is “more ‘country’ strong than weight-room defined.” Suh just needs maintain, physically, and focus on execution and technique. But Fairley ought to be able to add significant musculature and strength through NFL conditioning. As he gets up to the “weight class” above Suh, in the 315-325 range, he should evolve into a no-less dominant 1-tech throughout his career.

    The comparison I keep seeing is Warren Sapp. Sapp started off as a very similarly built 290-pound penetrating 3-tech, and slowly worked his way up to being a 330-plus-pound 3-4 two-gap DE, before realizing he was better thinner and dropping 50 pounds. I’d hope Fairley could find a happy medium as a two-way 1-tech pushing about 320, very similar to how Corey Williams is built now—only even more explosive than Williams.

    Of course, I can't talk about Fairley without talking about the "whispers." I can't write thousands of words about Nick Fairley without addressing the "rumors." Some think he takes plays off. Some think he doesn’t practice hard. Some think he’s too wrapped up in himself, and will put his feet up as soon as he cashes an NFL paycheck. These "whispers," as far as I can tell, are just people repeating and amplifying each other—there’s never a source, named or un-. Whispers become rumors, rumors become facts. It got so bad that some started speculating Fairley might be the target of a smear campaign. Ultimately, Fairley has never been in a lick of trouble off the field, and—excepting his treatment of quarterbacks—he’s well-behaved on it, too.

    Jason Braddock of TheXlog.com summed up my thoughts perfectly:

    The concept of the NFL combine is genius and it works great for the coaches / general managers who understand the nature of the beast. Good drafting teams start rumors about prospects that they want to fall to them. Bad drafting teams believe these rumors and play right into the hands of these superior teams. My Golden Rule for the draft assessment is: Listen to everything, believe nothing. What I mean by that is, when you here character rumors, injury concerns, etc, you listen to them but you don’t chalk these up as facts.  Instead you do extensive research and find out if these are actual truth based rumors.

    Some teams do this, we call those team “playoff” teams. Why? It’s simple, they’re in the playoffs every year because they do the leg work and know fact from fiction. Many NFL teams have become lazy and rely too heavily on the NFL combine. This goes against the first thing I was taught in scouting and that is that your evaluation should be 90% based on game film. When did Nick Fairley get passed by Marcell Dareus in most media draft boards? The answer is after the combine. The game film didn’t change after the combine, but Dareus ran a quick 10 yard split. Who cares, he ran that same speed on the game film that we watched in January, February, March and so on. This shouldn’t make you change your rankings.

    CBSsports.com writer Pete Prisco wrote a couple more really nice articles defending Fairley, which ended with a line sure to warm any Lions fan’s heart: “Nick Fairley is the best player in this draft, no matter how many people try to knock him down.” Well, the Lions got the best player in the draft—and Fairley got everything he dreamed about during the long two seasons he spent in junior college. People tried to knock him down, but now it’s his turn to knock people down.


    Read more...

    Three Cups Deep: The Parable of the One-Eyed Beggar

    >> 5.23.2011

    Long ago, there was a one-eyed man, living as a beggar on the street. He survived on the scraps and crumbs left behind by those around him. Mostly, he was ignored—though occasionally some would cruelly mock his misfortune. One day he awoke to find, miraculously, he had two fully-functioning eyes. He leapt to his feet, and sang praises to the heavens.

    He ran to the nearest store, and with his last copper bought thick paper stock, ink, and quill. He fashioned a sign that said “EYE FOR SALE.” He returned to his begging spot, proudly holding the sign high. A passerby asked, “You suffered so long for want of a second eye; why now would you willingly sell the first?” The beggar replied, “I figure I can probably get like a fourth round pick for it.”


    . . . perhaps that’s a little dramatic. But I’m astonished by Lions fans’ talk about trading Sammie Hill. Yes, the addition of Nick Fairley means that the Lions now have both quality and depth on the defensive line—but that’s not a situation that needs fixing. Suh and Fairley will rotate with Hill and Williams to keep all of them fresh for four quarters—and sixteen games. With those four tackles—plus the corps of ends they have in KVB, Avril, and Jackson—the Lions’ defensive line will be able to rotate in many different looks and packages without compromising the effectiveness of the line.

    Not only is that a good thing, it’s the design goal of the defense! As long as that defensive line is dominant—disrupting the pass and containing the run—the Lions’ scoring defense is going to be at least decent, no matter what’s going on in the back seven. However, if injuries or fatigue begin to take their toll, and the DL performance slips, suddenly the whole thing turns to cheesecloth.

    Still, let’s say Hill weren’t a member of the defense’s signature position group, where they’re trying to stack talent upon talent at almost any cost. He was a fourth-round draft pick, and is still on his rookie contract. His upside is phenomenal; he has the raw physical tools to become an elite run-stopping DT in the mold of Pat Williams or Grady Jackson. We knew Hill would take a few years to reach that potential—and this year’s Old Mother Hubbard shows that Hill’s already better than most run-stopping 4-3 DTs. So, he's already a valuable contributor, he may be developing into an elite player as we speak, and the cost of keeping him around is minimal. That is the last guy you’d ever want to trade.

    Just look at the market, here: Lawrence Jackson was two years removed from being a first-round pick, and had flashed potential despite being a bad schematic fit. The Lions got him for a sixth-rounder, and he played at an extremely high level when called upon. Do really want the Lions to flip Sammie Hill for a sixth, fifth, fourth, or even third-round pick and watch him go to the Pro Bowl elsewhere, while the Lions start from scratch with another rookie?

    I’m fascinated by the modern NFL fan’s drive for mediocrity. Whether it’s from playing too much Madden franchise mode, or a lack of understanding what separates the wheat from the chaff in the NFL, we fans (I include myself) want to take our team’s resources and trowel them evenly across the roster: we cheer for our team to get 22 “pretty good” starters.

    Wherever we see a “hole” in the starting lineup, we want it “filled”—preferably with a second- or third-round pick if the “hole” isn’t on the OL or DL. In a startling flip from fan attitudes of the 80s, we detest it when a high draft pick, or rich free agent contract, is lavished on a non-lineman (I blame this on the dominance of the 1990s Cowboys). Further, once that “hole” is “filled,” and we have an “extra” player, we want to flip him for whatever we can get because he’s “being wasted.” We believe that all rookies are guaranteed to hit their “upside.” We pretend that injuries either do not happen or are the ineffable will of the Football Gods, so preparing for them is folly.

    All told, the modern NFL fan seems to want their team comprised entirely of second- and third-round picks—drafted to fill immediate holes at the time of their drafting—plus mid-tier recycled veteran free agents. Oh, and an offensive line comprised entirely of former first-rounders. No holes, no superstars, no difference-makers either way, just 22 B-minus starters with nothing behind them. The problem with all this is that that team would suck.

    What's the lesson here? That the Lions, for the first time in forever, have skill AND talent AND depth. All three are required to win in the NFL; we got dramatic proof of that at the tail end of last season! Sammie Hill and Lawrence Jackson and Bobby Carpenter and Nate Vasher and Shaun Hill and Ashlee Palmer and Drew Stanton won those four straight games as much as Ndamukong Suh and Jahvid Best and Kyle Vanden Bosch and Nate Burleson did; maybe more so.

    We've waited so long for the Lions to rise up in strength and become a legitimate contender; don’t be so quick to cripple them.


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    The Lions’ Gate: Detroit Lions D-Line Death Cult

    >> 4.29.2011

    Last night, as Detroit’s time to pick approached, Spencer Hall a.k.a. Orson Swindle, of Every Day Should Be Saturday, Tweeted:

    edsbs_detroit_fairley_suhFollowing the Lions’ pick, he followed it up with:

    edsbs_detroit_death_cultFrom there, things kind of got out of hand:

    edsbs_detroit_death_cult_2

    edsbs_detroit_death_cult_3

    detroit_the_lions_gate_defensive_line

    With Nick Fairley, the Lions have added the player many thought was the best available talent in the draft—especially in that limbo between the college bowl season and the Combine. In Mel Kiper’s first mock (and many other early mocks, Fairley went #1 overall, to the Panthers. Instead of the “reach” that I was worried about yesterday, the Lions had an incredible player fall right into their lap—mostly thanks to four quarterbacks being taken in front of them, pushing a Top 5 talent all the way down to 13. The problem is, he plays the same position as Ndamukong Suh—doesn’t he?

    Well, yes and no. First, Fairley spelling Suh would hardly be a bad thing: according to Pro Football Focus, Suh led all NFL defensive tackles with 997 reps. He barely came off the field at all! With Suh and Fairley, Williams and Hill, the Lions will always have two fresh impact tackles on the field. Beyond that, the Lions are extremely creative with their defensive line; they use weird sets, they stunt and loop, they shuffle guys around. Adding this weapon to Kocurek and Cunningham’s arsenal is dangerous, indeed.

    Ultimately, it was a question of value. When the Vikings were on the clock, Adam Schefter reported that the Lions wanted, “badly,” to trade out of their subsequent pick. Apparently, the Lions feared Minnesota replacing the aging Pat Williams with Fairley, rather than roll the dice on a quarterback (as they did). This tells us what we need to know about the Lions’ draft board.

    Yesterday, I wrote that the Lions, at 1.13, would be sitting on a pile of good-but-not-great prospects. At that point, the Lions would be loathe to stand pat—if they could find a partner, I’d thought, the Lions would try desperately to slide back. Faced with the possibility that Fairley wouldn’t be there, that’s exactly what they did. Clearly, for them, Prince Amukamara fell into that class of “a whole bunch of guys we’d gladly take at 20 but not so much at 13”—and considering he went 19th, that valuation must have been in line with the rest of the NFL’s.

    For the Lions to have passed on Amukamara speaks volumes—not just about their thoughts on Fairley, but their thoughts on Amukamara. Obviously, cornerback is an area of pressing concern. Obviously, Amukamara was widely thought of as a Top 10 talent. Ndamukong Suh would be more than willing to tell the Lions everything they need to know about Prince. For them to not only pass on him, but be panicked at the thought of reaching for him at 13—well, as I said, it speaks volumes. It’s not that I think Prince will be terrible now, or something, but that if you woke up today thinking the Lions passed on the guy who’d immediately solve all their problems at corner . . . apparently, they didn’t.

    It’s not all air guitars and pryotechnics, however, as not everyone is sold on Fairley and Suh becoming the Lions’ answer to the Mighty Ducks’ Bash Brothers. Pro Football Focus just posted an article called The Fairley Verdict, and the verdict was mixed, indeed:

    It wouldn’t be the most ridiculous statement to say the Lions walked into the draft with the best combination of defensive tackles in the league.

    So they didn’t need another one. Let alone a guy who on paper looks to suffer from the same weaknesses as Ndamukong Suh, as well as some pretty big character issues that caused him to drop in the first place. Presuming he plays up to his one good year in college, the Lions got themselves a guy who will likely be very good at penetrating, but perhaps lack a little in run defense. Just think how the combo of Suh and Fairley would leave them susceptible to draw plays and trap blocks? To say they don’t have the linebackers to deal with that level of linemen coming at them would be an understatement.

    Eep. They even invoke "same old Lions," a phrase that sends a chill down my spine, and should induce shudders in anyone reading this. Yet, it’s important to note, Suh and Fairley will likely be rotating together in the same spot, not always playing side-by side—and, they are, Suh may be playing defensive end. Don’t forget, Suh has always had a little inside-outside to him, and rumors the Lions might play Suh more on the outside compelled Schwartz to publicly denounce them a few weeks ago. I’m not saying Suh is going to switch positions, but that he’ll be able to join the DE rotation for a number of different looks. Think about:

    Avril * Suh * Williams * KVB

    Jackson * Suh * Fairley * Avril

    Suh * Williams * Hill * Jackson

    These are just to wet your whistle. My calculator tells me there are 81 possible combinations with Avril, Lo-Jack and Suh rotating at left end, Suh, Fairley, and Williams at 3-tech, Williams, Hill, and Fairley at 1-tech, and KVB, Avril, and Lo-Jack at right end. As Jim Schwartz said:

    "Well, we play 130 defensive tackle snaps in a game. So, if we're rotating three guys through and they're playing 45 snaps apiece ... No. 1, there'll be a little bit of pressure. We can keep rolling waves and waves."

    Ultimately, this was simply a Mayhew Pick. The Lions have a defensive philosophy: build the most dominant defensive line in the NFL and let them handle it. Mayhew took the best player available—to some, Nick Fairley was the best player available to anyone in this draft—that fit in with their approach.

    Now pass me that Honolulu Blue Kool-Aid.


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    Old Mother Hubbard: The Defense

    >> 4.15.2011

    detroit_lions_defense

    Now that the Old Mother Hubbarding of the defense is complete, I decided to make a little visualization of the overall quality of the defense. Again, this is based ENTIRELY Pro Football Focus’s overall player grades, and all of the previous disclaimers apply: secondary grades are of unverified voracity, penalties are weighted more heavily than I’d like, and consistently above average play grades out much higher than a “home run hitter.”

    Yes, I know there are 12 squares. Modern NFL defenses use nickel as much as they use base, so third corner is just as much of a “starter” as third linebacker. Second, the main color of each square, the inside, represents the Lions’ current projected starter, as best I can figure. The outline of each square represents the second string/top rotational player. Color gradients correspond to one-half of one standard deviation (I’ll call these “tiers”).

    The first thing that strikes you is Cliff Avril, in the third positive tier—the only Lion defender to grade out so strongly. Second, both of the starting defensive tackles are in the first tier above average. Corey Williams would have been in the third or fourth positive if not for his hellacious penalty grade! Suh’s PFF grades have been discussed at length, suffice to say he was inconsistent both play-to-play and game-to-game. You see the strong play of Sammie Hill and Lawrence Jackson as the green outlines on the right side of the line.

    The only defender in the back seven to be binned in a positive tier was S Amari Spievey, in the first. After that . . . it’s not pretty. Even keeping in mind the grading questions for the secondary, and the low snap counts for all of the OLB (who rotated like crazy), things just don’t look good. Delmas, of course, was hampered with a groin injury all season.

    THE COMPLETE DEFENSIVE NEEDS SHOPPING LIST:

    • An impact two-way defensive end to rotate soon, and develop for 2012.
    • A credible backup middle linebacker.
    • An athletic, pass-rushing OLB ready to start right away.
    • An athletic, pass-rushing OLB to rotate soon, and develop for 2012.
    • An athletic cover corner, ready to take over one side in 2012.
    • If Chris Houston leaves, a complete two-way corner, ready to start right away.

    Next up, offense . . .


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