Detroit Lions general manager Martin Mayhew is not a man averse to making draft-day trades.
During his tenure as the man running Detroit’s drafts, he has traded up to acquire players like Jahvid Best, Tahir Whitehead and Chris Greenwood. He’s not afraid to move up a few spots to secure his preferred target.
Unfortunately, the return on those aggressive moves has not been positive. Best is already out of football with concussion issues that pre-dated his drafting. Whitehead is strictly a special teamer, albeit a pretty good one. Greenwood has played sparingly in his two seasons, though his arrow is pointing upward.
The enthusiasm for moving up cooled in 2013, however. In fact, the only trade of that draft involved moving backward to secure an extra pick, dealing the 137th overall pick to Seattle for No. 165 and No. 199.
Seattle got defensive tackle Jesse Williams, who spent his entire rookie season on injured reserve, per AL.com. Detroit drafted punter Sam Martin and running back Theo Riddick.
Martin started right away and appears to be a long-term solution at a position that had troubled Detroit for years. Riddick flew past Mikel Leshoure on the depth chart and saw action as the third running back, as well as playing a little in the slot.
Detroit wears the whole "trading down for extra picks" suit well. Fans might recall the last time Detroit dealt away a prominent starter to acquire extra draft picks, too.
The winless Detroit Lions traded their unhappy 2004 first-round pick and one-time Pro Bowler for three draft picks, from the first, third and sixth round in 2009. Detroit also gave the Cowboys a seventh-rounder next year.
While that act of thievery didn't come on draft weekend, it did pay its benefits over the following draft.
Who to Trade?
Right now, Detroit has another fairly recent first-round pick it could trade away for a similar haul.
No, it's not Ndamukong Suh. Despite recent dalliances with that concept, the only real motivating factor to trade Suh is to obtain salary-cap relief. Yet, signing arguably the best defensive tackle in the NFL today to a long-term contract extension provides the same benefit, plus the Lions will still have him anchoring the front of the defense at an All-Pro level.
It's certainly not Matthew Stafford. As much as he frustrates fans and coaches alike at times, going from Stafford at quarterback to either backup Kellen Moore or a journeyman like Brandon Weeden would escalate the frustration level from lukewarm to sitting on a grease fire.
Calvin Johnson? Aside from the fact that his massive contract precludes all but a small handful of trading partners, teams trying to win generally don't accomplish that feat by trading away the best player at his position in the game, in his athletic prime, no less.
Riley Reiff and Ziggy Ansah, the last two first-rounders, are both major building blocks for the future. Dealing them now, with their best football in front of them, makes no sense at all.
The one player who can bring back a return worth the void left behind is Nick Fairley.
Yes, the Lions would miss the hefty defensive tackle. When he's on top of his game, Fairley is a major impact player. Who can forget his triumphant stuff to win the Chicago game?
Unfortunately, Fairley only brings that high level of play sporadically. More often than not, he's an underachieving, penalty-plagued player with wildly uneven production.
This coming 2014 season will be the final one on his rookie contract before he needs an extension.
It's that prospect that makes trading him now so palatable. Instead of pouring more money into Fairley's unreliable play, Detroit could prevent a lot of future salary-cap issues by opting to part with him now and getting something in return.
Let's say Fairley has another season like his 2013 year, where he produced six sacks and 24 solo tackles. That would give Fairley 17.5 sacks over the last three seasons.
Here are deals that other defensive tackles with similar production have received recently:
|Player||Years/Total Money||Guaranteed Money||3-yr. sack total|
Spotrac for contracts, NFL.com for sack total
While it's tough to forecast the dynamics, it's fair to presume that Fairley will command something along the lines of four years and $42 million. That price tag only goes up if he gets eight or more sacks in 2014.
That is committing a significant amount of salary-cap resources to the defensive tackle position. Detroit already spends more than any other team on the position, per Spotrac.
The return on that investment is just not worth it. With one dynamic star in Suh, it can and will be possible to equal Fairley's production with far more economical resources. Witness:
Player A: 24 solo tackles, 6 sacks Player B: 25 solo tackles, 6 sacks Player A: Nick Fairley, top 15 pick Player B: Chris Jones, 6th round— Jeff Risdon (@JeffRisdon) February 6, 2014
It makes more sense to find a cheaper alternative to Fairley to play next to Suh and use that precious cap room elsewhere. It's the difference between signing top-tier free agents, ones who can dramatically impact the roster, or signing second-tier players with an eye on eventually replacing them in another year or two.
In 2014 free-agent speak, that's choosing between Pro Bowler Jairus Byrd or average starter James Ihedigbo at safety.
If the Lions commit to Fairley, other positions will suffer the unintended consequences.
Who to Trade With?
The flip side of the coin is finding a trading partner. This is why trading Fairley now makes the most sense. It can be sold to interested teams, as well as the loyal Detroit fans, that Fairley just doesn't fit with what the new coaching staff wants.
It can also be legitimately explained for what it is, a way to free up future cap room and to more evenly distribute spending across the entire roster, instead of continuing to devote a reckless amount to the defensive tackle position.
Fairley would certainly draw interest from other teams. He's just three years removed from being a first-round pick, and he's only 26.
He's been very good at times throughout his three years in Detroit. His Pro Football Focus (subscription required) marks have always been positive despite his penalties for, well, his penalties.
|Year||Overall||Run Defense||Pass Rush||QB Hurries|
Pro Football Focus
There are some teams desperate for defensive tackle help. Helping the Lions market for Fairley is that this is not regarded as a strong draft class at the position. Detroit can sell high.
One team sure to have interest is the Oakland Raiders. They currently hold the fifth pick in the draft, and their defensive tackle depth chart is almost completely comprised of street free agents who wouldn't make many other teams.
Were Mayhew to offer them Fairley and the No. 10 pick for that fifth pick and minor later compensation (a swap of positions in the fourth and seventh rounds), the Raiders would have to strongly consider it. They're not going to get anyone better than Fairley for their defense at No. 5, and they still keep a pick in the top 10.
For a rebuilding team, that's a pretty attractive proposition.
With the fifth pick, the Lions would be in line to draft Sammy Watkins or Khalil Mack. That's more bang for the buck than they could hope for at No. 10.
Another team that desperately needs someone with Fairley's talents is the Dallas Cowboys. While he's unlikely to fetch their top pick (No. 16 overall) by himself, asking for their second-round and fifth-round picks could get the job done.
The Cowboys have major salary-cap issues of their own, which could preclude them as potential trade partners.
While it's not typically copacetic to trade within a division, the Chicago Bears make a lot of sense for Fairley too. As Chicago Now notes, Bears general manager Phil Emery is intently focused on upgrading their lousy defense.
The Bears pick 14th. As with Dallas, that's probably not a feasible asking price for Fairley. However, the 19th pick of the second round and a conditional 2015 pick based on Fairley's production in Chicago would figure to pique their interest.
Is it likely that the Lions deal Fairley before the end of the NFL draft? Only Mayhew knows that answer, but the odds seem about as likely as Tim Tebow fronting a death metal band.
Still, it's fun to ponder the possibilities.