General manager Martin Mayhew made the announcement to beat reporters at the NFL Annual Meeting in Orlando, as reported by Tim Twentyman of the team's official website.
By refusing to pick up Fairley's $5.5 million option, it means the enigmatic talent is now in the final year of his rookie contract. It also means the Lions are backing away from making a long-term commitment to a former first-round pick loaded with talent.
It appears the Lions are aiming for one of two specific outcomes here. Either they're hoping this produces a more consistently motivated and dedicated Nick Fairley, or it's a precursor to a trade.
All public indications are that this is a motivational tactic. Kyle Meinke of MLive laid out a strong quote from Mayhew:
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. 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.
Mayhew's assessment is both stark and accurate. Fairley has proven he can play at a high level as a legit impact performer. Who can forget his triumphant stuff to seal the win over Chicago last season?
Yet far too often, Fairley is a decided non-factor. Even worse, he's proven to be a detriment in several games.
Fairley's Pro Football Focus (subscription required) game scores are a veritable roller coaster. He has five games graded in the green, which indicates a positive score over 1.0. But there are also four games in the red, meaning a negative score below minus-1.0.
Part of the issue is his propensity for penalties. From PFF, only Tampa Bay's Gerald McCoy was guilty of more penalties at the position, but McCoy offers double-digit sack figures and almost triple the QB hurries.
Perhaps Mayhew really is trying to motivate Fairley into a more consistent, responsible force. Players in a contract year do have a funny way of spiking in productivity, after all. Putting the impetus on Fairley to prove he's worthy of a fat new deal could really pay off for Detroit.
Getting the big man to produce results expected of a first-round pick would be a major improvement. After all, in 2013 he was nearly identical to a largely anonymous sixth-round pick...
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
The Lions are wise to not pay for that inadequate return on investment. If the motivational tactic of making Fairley sing for his own supper works, his stats could double in 2014.
Of course, refusing to pick up the option also opens the door to moving Fairley in a trade.
By removing the hefty option, any team acquiring Fairley would be free to immediately negotiate a new deal with him. Failing a new deal, that new team would still hold the ability to use a franchise tag on their new acquisition.
The Lions themselves could also use a franchise tag after the season to get one more year to make a long-term decision on Fairley. That seems extremely unlikely, however, because that franchise tag value—$8.45 million in 2014, per NFL.com— dwarfs the cost of the option the Lions just declined.
What kind of trade return could the Lions reasonably expect for him?
I explored that very option a month ago. Among the potential deals mentioned there included:
- Chicago, for a second-rounder and a conditional 2015 pick
- Dallas, for second- and fifth-round picks
- Oakland, for the fifth overall pick by packaging Fairley with the No. 10 pick
Free agency has pretty much quelled Chicago's needs up front, so they're out. Dallas and Oakland, however, would still figure to have some interest.
The problem now for Detroit is that they've lowered Fairley's value. If the team that has invested so much in him and knows him best is afraid to pay him, that's a real warning shot other teams will heed.
At this point, offering Oakland merely Fairley and the 10th pick for the fifth pick might not be enough for the Raiders. Perhaps a pot sweetener like a third-rounder in 2015 would do the trick...?
Should the Lions put out the word that they are listening to offers for Fairley, the return is questionable. Would a team needing an interior pass-rushing presence part with a third-rounder for a player with his mixed results and troublesome past?
If so, the Lions should take it and run. Ten months from now, Fairley will leave for zero return to Detroit.
The Lions could parlay any trade return on his successor. Let's say a team does indeed send a third-round pick to Detroit for Fairley. There are several draft options in that range. Among them:
- Penn State's DaQuan Jones
- LSU's Ego Ferguson
- Princeton's Caraun Reid
- South Carolina's Kelcy Quarles
All are ranked by Bleacher Report's Matt Miller in that general third-round range.
Or the Lions could opt to address defensive tackle more prominently. Pittsburgh's Aaron Donald would certainly make an intriguing No. 10 overall pick.
NFL.com's Bucky Brooks suggested another alternative for that pick, too:
Katzenstein (@jkatzenstein) March 26, 2014
Trading Fairley could negatively impact the on-field product in 2014, and that has to be weighed carefully. Then again, New England coaxed Fairley numbers from Houston's sixth-round pick last season, and they don't have an All-Pro like Ndamukong Suh lined up next to Jones either.
A player like Donald situated between Suh and Ezekiel Ansah could blow away Fairley's 2013 production. It's easy to envision players like Reid or even Louisiana Tech's Justin Ellis equaling those numbers with a later pick, too.
It's worth exploring every possible trade option to get something back for Fairley. Unfortunately, Detroit is caught in a bit of a Catch-22 with the burly tackle.
Even if the motivation works and Fairley provides the Lions with a strong 2014 season, the team is unlikely to be able to afford his open-market value. Like now, it's doubtful the Lions pay a premium for it anyways; it would be skeptically viewed as a cash grab on Fairley's part, just as his final year at Auburn ultimately proved.
The Lions are not apt to fall for that trick again. That's almost certainly a factor in their decision to decline the option, and it's why Fairley's tenure in Detroit is coming to an end sooner than later.