For the last five seasons, the Lions built their defense through a strong defensive line featuring three first-round draft picks still early in their careers. Suh became an All-Pro. Ezekiel Ansah, the defensive end taken in 2013, is trending that way. Then there’s Fairley, who was oft-injured and inconsistent, but exceedingly talented when healthy and motivated.
The three were a large part of why Detroit had the top-ranked run defense in the NFL last season. Despite Fairley’s injury for the second half of the 2014 season, they were a big reason why Detroit made the playoffs as well. Suh and Fairley were big contributors to the 2011 playoff team as well.
Now, the interior of that line – Suh and Fairley – are off to Miami and St. Louis. With their departures, the identity of the Detroit defense will have to change.
Yes, the Lions traded for Haloti Ngata and signed 24-year-old Tyrunn Walker to start to rebuild the interior of the defensive line, but Ngata is at the end of his prime and is more likely a short-term solution than a long-term plan for Detroit. Walker is intriguing, but he never had a major role with New Orleans and it will be interesting to see how he adapts to that potential.
This Detroit defense is going to look markedly different than the one that made the playoffs in 2014 because of what was lost in the middle. Ngata will draw double-teams, but won’t see the attention Suh did. More pressure will be put on Ansah, who is now both the present and future of the Detroit defensive line. Yet he has never played a game without Suh.
Now he’ll have to learn how to play while receiving more consistent attention from defenses. He’ll have to adjust to seeing double-teams once earmarked for Suh in the middle. And the rest of the Lions, beneficiaries of the attention Suh and sometimes Fairley received in the middle, will have to get used to seeing fewer single-blocks themselves.
The defense itself could change as well. Without Suh and Fairley and with a glut of linebackers and defensive ends with flexibility, the Lions could play more varied fronts than they did in 2014. That is another possible change and adjustment the returning Lions will have to make defensively.
General manager Martin Mayhew hinted at this during the NFL combine, when he said he could envision a scenario in which Detroit had neither Suh nor Fairley. But it still seemed unlikely that would actually happen, especially considering the confidence the Lions had in re-signing Suh.
It was not a situation that seemed possible until two weeks ago, when the Lions chose not to use the franchise tag on Suh on top of declining the fifth-year option on Fairley before the 2014 season. The decision not to tag Suh – one the Lions had to make – greatly increased the chances Detroit would be where it is now, without two of their bigger draft investments in the past half-decade.
The draft, at least in the Fairley-Suh years, is now closed with the Lions. With Fairley’s departure, the Lions have no players left that they selected in either 2010 or 2011.