When the Detroit Lions selected defensive tackle Nick Fairley in the first round of the 2011 NFL Draft, many loved the pick. Visions of Fairley and Ndamukong Suh manhandling opposing interior linemen together danced in the heads of media and Lions fans alike.
Still, there was an undercurrent of doubt. The Lions had many other pressing needs on both sides of the ball; in 2010 Suh and veteran Corey Williams had combined very effectively with 2009 fourth-round pick Sammie Hill.
Could Fairley make enough of an impact to justify passing on an offensive lineman, linebacker or defensive back?
Fairley was extremely impressive in limited action in 2011, mostly (but not quite) answering that question in the affirmative. But Lions fans should not be surprised if GM Martin Mayhew again chooses to reload the defensive line with first-round talent.
Williams' play took a step back in 2010, cutting back on penalties but also on pass-rush effectiveness. The talented-but-raw Hill is developing his body and technique, but is far from realizing his elite potential.
Worse, Williams is on the last year of his contract, and Hill is a restricted free agent. The cap-strapped Lions may have a decision to make on both of them.
On the outside, Kyle Vanden Bosch bounced back from 2010's severe neck injury to have his best season in years. The 33-year-old stalwart played all 16 games and racked up four forced fumbles and eight sacks, his highest total since 2007.
However, his neck flared up again at the end of the season, causing Vanden Bosch to miss practices.
Cliff Avril had a career year in a contract year, the best possible situation for him—and the worst possible situation for the Lions.
The 2008 third-round pick had 11 sacks, six forced fumbles, and an interception returned for a touchdown; he's now an unrestricted free agent. Both Avril and the Lions want him to re-sign in Detroit, but the money must be right . . . and it might not be.
2010 seventh-round draft pick Willie Young had a fantastic season by Pro Football Focus's accounting, generating three sacks, four QB hits, and 19 pressures on just 259 snaps.
His monster +11.7 grade would rank him 21st amongst all 4-3 DEs if he'd met PFF's 25% snap count minimum (which he barely didn't). Still, Young is extremely . . . well, young, and counting on him to start would be very risky.
2010 secret superstar Lawrence Jackson was steady in rotation, especially against the run. His 18 tackles nearly match Cliff Avril's 21, despite Jackson playing in fewer than half the snaps Avril did. He also added four sacks, two QB hits, and 14 pressures.
The Lions' defense depends on the front four to be extremely effective for four quarters. The defensive line should be able to generate pressure, without the back seven blitzing from gun to gun. They don't just need four "good" starters, they need seven or eight great players rolling in waves.
If the Lions determine Williams and/or Hill's production aren't worth their paycheck, they'll have to acquire a tackle to rotate with Suh and Fairley to keep them fresh—and be the anchor against the run that neither young interior pass rusher has yet been.
No one questions Vanden Bosch's will to win, but betting he'll stay effective for all of his 12th season despite a chronic neck injury is a risky bet.
Young and Jackson would have to not only spell, but bookend Vanden Bosch at an elite level for the Lions' defense to be as effective as it was in 2011.
Some might call another first-round defensive lineman a "luxury" pick, but depending on the contract situations of Avril, Williams, and Hill selection could be a necessity.