In the early months of 2011, John Elway had just taken over as the new Football czar of the Denver Broncos. Following a 4-12 season, the worst franchise finish in decades, the Broncos held the No. 2 overall pick in the draft. The roster was full of holes. The team was in a state of myopic dysphoria, but Elway had a rare opportunity.
He could not squander the No. 2 overall pick. He and his scouting staff had to identify a transcendent talent, one who could become a star in the NFL and help lead the team for the next decade. Beyond Cam Newton, the quarterback class was weak. Elway, no doubt, did not feel absolutely confident in the signal callers on-roster, but the team had just drafted a quarterback in the first round the previous year--Tim Tebow--albeit under Josh McDaniels.
All signs pointed to the Carolina Panthers selecting Newton with the No. 1 overall pick. Elway decided to focus on defensive difference makers at No. 2. Patrick Peterson (CB), Von Miller (LB) and Nick Fairley (DT), were all considered at No. 2. Miller ended up being the pick, and it was the right one, as he would go on to win the Defensive Rookie of the Year honor. In three of his four years in the NFL (the three he played full seasons), Miller has been selected to the Pro Bowl and earned All-Pro honors.
Ultimately, Elway got his guy, but he also wanted Fairley—an athletic penetrator at defensive tackle, but the Broncos wouldn’t be back on the clock until the second round. When Fairley began to plummet down the draft board, Elway attempted to trade back into the top half of the first round, a maneuver to lasso Fairley, but in the end, he didn’t want to mortgage the Broncos entire draft class to facilitate it.
Fairley, who many considered a top-5 pick from a talent perspective, ended up dropping to No. 13, where he was eventually selected by the Detroit Lions. Off-the-field issues, and a perceived deception about his measurements pre-Combine, caused him to slide. Nevertheless, he was a top-15 pick and many expected he and Ndamukong Suh to become the best defensive tackle duo in the NFL for years to come.
Unfortunately, those aspirations never materialized fully on the field. In his four years with the Lions, Fairley showed flashes of his elite potential, but injuries and inconsistent play, ultimately caused his once bright star to fizzle out in Motown. As a former first round pick, the Lions had the prerogative in 2014 to option a fifth season of his rookie contract, but they decided against it. Doing so would have cost the team $5.5M and General Manager Martin Mayhew didn’t see the value.
"I have to ask myself, 'Is he a $5.5 million player right now?' There are some performances where he is, and some performances where he's not,” Mayhew said last spring via ESPN.“I think it's going to be an incentive for him to have an outstanding season, and that's what I want more than anything else."
The Lions hoped Fairley would have a productive 2014 season (in a contrat year), but again it was marred by injuries and now he will hit the open market as an unrestricted free agent. Fairley’s best statistical season as a pro came in 2013, when he racked up 35 combined tackles, 6 sacks and a forced fumble.
Last season, Fairley only appeared in eight games, which amounted to 297 snaps. He earned a +9.8 cumulative grade via Pro Football Focus, which is impressive, considering how little he was on the field. His most impressive season, according to PFF, came in 2012, when he earned a +15.1 cumulative grade. He played 511 snaps that year and notched 5.5 sacks and 23 stops. Here’s how PFF defines a “stop”.
The number of solo defensive tackles made, which constitute an offensive failure (including sacks).
There is no question that Nick Fairley is a talented player. And at 27 years old, he’s still in the prime of his career. It is my opinion that Fairley is in need of a change of scenery. At 6-foot-4, 308 pounds, he could be an excellent fit for what Wade Phillips looks for in an attacking nose tackle in his 3-4 defense. He’s big, but he’s not a behemoth. His size allows him to utilize his athleticism and quickness to make plays behind the line of scrimmage.
Injuries, and perhaps a lack of focus, have somewhat derailed his career. But in Denver, where the locker room culture is stable and built on the expectation of winning, it is conceivable that Fairley could experience a career renaissance. Factoring in the likelihood that Terrance Knighton will be playing for another team in 2015, Fairley would be a solid option to replace him on the first team defense.
Some might argue that the Broncos already have an under-performing former first round DT on the roster in Sylvester Williams, who could step in and start, without having to pony up additional precious money from the salary cap. And that’s true. But Elway was high on Fairley in 2011 and saw him as a difference maker and someone who could contribute to his vision of the team. If Fairley’s health is in order, Elway might want to kick the tires and see if there’s anything left in the tank.
Fairley is ranked as Scout.com’s No. 4 free agent at defensive tackle. There will be a market for him, but interested teams won’t have to break the bank to acquire him. With a new team—one who believes in him--and an improved culture, Fairley could still meet the high expectations that once surrounded this dominant collegiate defender.