Originally written on Fox Sports Detroit  |  Last updated 10/14/14
Just over a year ago, Nick Fairley appeared to be quickly heading toward the NFL's wasted-talent pile. He had produced little during an injury-plagued rookie season and then got arrested twice - once for marijuana possession, and once for driving under the influence of alcohol and resisting arrest - in less than two months. The second incident, coming so soon after the first, suggested that the Detroit Lions' young defensive tackle just didn't get it and, ultimately, probably didn't care. Those perceptions, however, are changing. It can all turn again with one bad decision, but Fairley has shown signs of getting on the right track to live up to his star potential. "I see this as a breakout year for him," teammate Nate Burleson said. "He came in just happy to be here, with a pocket full of money. Now I think he understands that not only does he need to prove he's one of the top guys at his position, but we need him to be that. "He's starting to understand he's not just a small piece to a huge puzzle. He's a huge piece to a regular-sized puzzle." Fairley started to emerge last year when he made 5 12 sacks in 13 games before missing the final three weeks because of a shoulder injury. He played on a national-championship team in college at Auburn and expects to win, expects to be the best. That's why he made those bold predictions that the Lions are going to the Super Bowl and that he and Ndamukong Suh will be the league's top defensive-tackle duo this season. It's clear that Fairley is feeling more and more comfortable with his role. Perhaps as much as any player, he brought energy to the practice field during the Lions' off-season workout program. "I want to be that guy the team looks to when we're down," said Fairley, the No. 13 pick overall in the 2011 NFL Draft. "I'm going to be the guy, saying, 'Hey, it's not over,' that guy that's really going to pump everybody up. "That's what I was looking for this offseason, to just let guys know I'm going to be here for you guys. "Winning is good. It's never good losing. I'm trying to bring that environment to the locker room." Who knew a year ago that Fairley would be establishing himself as a leader? He's carried it off the field, too. Not only did he host the second annual Nick Fairley Community Kickball Tournament for youngsters on Belle Isle in May, Fairley also took his community service back to his hometown in Mobile, Ala., where both of his arrests occurred. Fairley's inaugural Lion Heart Charity Football and Cheerleading Camp, free to the children back in Alabama, was held last month. Fairley has a knack for interacting impressively with the kids, probably because he's just a big - 6-foot-4, 298-pound - kid at heart. But at age 25, he's slowly maturing in a lot of ways these days. If it continues - and if he can stay healthy, too - those concerns about where his career and his life were headed will disappear in the near future. "This will be a big year for him to be on the field consistently for us," Lions coach Jim Schwartz said. "He hasn't been healthy enough to be on the field for a long enough time. That's his biggest challenge. It's availability. "(Matthew) Stafford wasn't on the field enough as a first- and second-year player. He seems to have put some of that stuff behind him. We need Nick to do the same thing."

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