It happens every fall. A player bursts onto the scene, makes a big play or helps his team win a pivotal game, and the collective football world celebrates his arrival as a true difference maker in the NFL. Let's get ahead of the curve! In advance of the 2013 season, NFL.com analyst Bucky Brooks identifies candidates for significant improvement, concentrating on defensive linemen below. Click here for other positions.
Most Improved Defensive Lineman for 2013: Nick Fairley
Fairley's backstory: The 2011 NFL Draft's 13th overall pick was expected to immediately form a devastating defensive tackle tandem with Ndamukong Suh. While the Auburn product has shown flashes of brilliance (6.5 sacks in 23 career games), an assortment of injuries has caused him to miss nine games, limiting his impact on the defense. Most importantly, Fairley's unavailability has prevented him from developing great chemistry with Suh.
Why he will improve in 2013: If injuries hadn't limited him to seven starts over his first two seasons, it's quite possible Fairley already would be regarded as one of the top defensive tackles in the NFL. He has shown dominant ability against both the run and pass. Additionally, Fairley has displayed the non-stop motor and nasty disposition that initially led the Lions to believe he would develop into the ideal complement to Suh on the interior.
Standing 6-foot-4, 298 pounds, Fairley is an ultra-athletic interior defender with an exceptional combination of power and first-step quickness. He is a rare interior pass rusher with the ability to overpower or outmaneuver blockers at the point of attack. This not only makes him difficult to block in isolated situations, but it creates chaos when opponents elect to double-team in pass protection. Looking at the All-22 footage from 2012, Fairley routinely defeated opponents with a devastating bull rush that collapsed the pocket up the middle. He forklifted blockers before quickly shedding them and pursuing the ball with relentlessness. The video clip above showcases Fairley's strength and power, as he drops Aaron Rodgers for a seven-yard loss after using a bull rush to deposit the offensive guard into the former league MVP's lap.
While Fairley clearly possesses the power to overwhelm opponents with a bull rush, he also displays the hand skills to win with an assortment of arm-over techniques at the line of scrimmage. Fairley's game is surprisingly polished for a guy with limited experience; it is uncommon for a young player to have such an array of moves in his arsenal. In the video clip to the right, Fairley flashes a bull-rush move before using a quick arm-over maneuver to slip past the offensive guard for a big hit on Rodgers.
Fairley's athleticism encourages the Lions to feature more stunts and games along the line to create sack opportunities. To take advantage of Fairley's quickness and burst, defensive coordinator Gunther Cunningham designs stunts with No. 98 making initial contact with the offensive guard before looping around the corner. The initial engagement confuses the offensive line, allowing Fairley to eventually have a free run to the quarterback off the edge. Check out the video clip just below to see this tactic in action.
If Fairley can continue to develop and refine his game as a pass rusher, while avoiding the injury bug, the Lions will boast the best defensive tackle tandem in the NFL.
Impact on the team: Fairley gives the Lions another dominant interior defender with the ability to wreak havoc on opponents. With a healthy Fairley and Suh in the middle, the Lions can create pressure without having to send extra defenders on blitzes. This allows Detroit to remain in umbrella zone coverage, limiting the amount of big plays in the passing game. With an offense capable of putting up 30 points against any opponent, improved defensive play could result in a playoff berth for the Lions.
Projected 2013 stat line: 45 tackles, 8.5 sacks and 3 forced fumbles.
Other Defensive Linemen to Watch
Quinton Coples, DL/OLB, New York Jets: Rex Ryan's decision to reassume a larger role with the defense unquestionably will result in a more aggressive approach from Gang Green. The former defensive coordinator lives and dies by the blitz, putting the onus on the pass rush to dictate the tempo of the game. Given Coples' versatility (he's actually preparing to play a hybrid DE/OLB role in 2013) and impressive rush skills, Ryan will make him one of the focal points of the game plan, leading to more sack opportunities for the second-year pro. As a result, Coples not only will improve on his rookie sack total (5.5), but he could become the kind of disruptive player who strikes fear in the hearts of offensive coordinators around the NFL.
Michael Brockers, DT, St. Louis Rams: Jeff Fisher understands the importance of building a defense that is sturdy down the middle, explaining his fascination with the ultra-athletic Brockers during the pre-draft process one year ago. Checking in at 6-5 and 322 pounds, Brockers is the long, rangy run stuffer defensive coordinators covet in the middle, yet he still possesses the strength, power and agility to collapse the pocket as a pass rusher. As a result, he was able to put together an impressive rookie season (31 tackles, four sacks and a forced fumble) without fully grasping the speed, tempo and intensity of the pro game. With 12 NFL starts under his belt and a full offseason to master the nuances of the position, Brockers could become a transcendent star at defensive tackle in 2013.
Da'Quan Bowers, DE, Tampa Bay Buccaneers: The Buccaneers put a lot of faith in Bowers' development when they allowed Michael Bennett to walk in free agency. Greg Schiano and Mark Dominik are staking their reputations on a third-year pro with only 4.5 sacks in 26 games (including six starts). Additionally, Bowers is only a year removed from an Achilles injury that impacted his speed and explosiveness off the ball. However, Bowers started to regain his burst and acceleration during the final weeks of the 2012 season. Although his sack numbers didn't spike, he routinely registered hits on the quarterback and provided moderate pressure off the edge. Factor in tighter coverage in the back end -- with the offseason additions of Darrelle Revis and Dashon Goldson -- and Bowers' previous near-misses should become impact hits and sacks in 2013.
Follow Bucky Brooks on Twitter @BuckyBrooks.