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Big body, big talent, big concerns

Posted Apr 22, 2011

Despite his dominant play in the BCS Championship game, Auburn defensive tackle Nick Fairly has had to prove to NFL teams that he’s not a “one-year wonder” and will be more boom than bust.


Nick Fairley did not singlehandedly halt Oregon’s pursuit of the national championship last season. It just seemed like it during Auburn’s three-point victory in the BCS title game.

The 6-foot-4, 291-pound defensive tackle was all but unblockable while registering a sack, three tackles for losses and a forced fumble. The effort earned Fairley defensive MVP honors in the championship game and lifted him to shoo-in status as the No. 1 pick in the NFL Draft.

Then something happened. Teams started to scrutinize Fairley during their preparation for the draft and his stock has slipped in the same fashioned he was slipping blocks during the BCS title game.

The tag the continues to dog Fairley entering Thursday night’s first round is “one-year wonder.” As dominant as he was last season, when he had a school-record 11½ sacks and a SEC-leading 24 tackles for losses, Fairley had only that one season. A transfer from Copiah-Lincoln Community College, Fairley flashed his potential for the Tigers in 2009, but delivered on it only last season – and is passing on his final season.

Now, he is generally rated behind Alabama’s Marcell Dareus among the D-tackles in this draft class, although he’s still considered a Top 10 pick.

2011 DRAFT: Defensive Line

A look at the position heading into the April 28-30 NFL Draft (position and overall rankings and projections by Rob Rang, senior analysts for NFLDraftScout.com):

Rank Player, School Projection
1/3 DT Marcell Dareus, Alabama First Round
2/5 DT Nick Fairley, Auburn First Round
3/6 DE Da'Quan Bowers, Clemson First Round
4/7 DE Robert Quinn, North Carolina First Round
5/13 DE Cameron Jordan, California First Round

What's it all mean? This is the best and deepest unit in this year’s draft class. It’s obvious because there are four D-linemen in Rang’s Top 7 and five in the Top 13, but also apparent because there are four more linemen in his Top 20: Wisconsin DE J.J. Watt at 15, Purdue DE Ryan Kerrigan at 17, Missouri DE Aldon Smith at 18 and Illinois DT Corey Liuget at 19. “It’s the best defensive end class I’ve seen,” said Mike Mayock, draft analyst for the NFL Network. “I’ve got eight or nine defensive ends with first-round grades. Typically, four defensive ends go in the first round.” Which, of course, makes this an atypical group.

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“Fairley has just phenomenal feet and athletic ability and agility – and every other way you would try to describe a defensive tackle,” said Todd McShay, draft analyst for ESPN. “He does it all, in terms of the athleticism.

“And I think he has a chance to be the best interior pass-rusher from this class. The problem is he also has a chance to be a bust, if I’m going to put it bluntly.”

History is on McShay’s side, which also means it’s working against Fairley. From 1994 – the last time a defensive tackle was drafted No. 1 overall (Dan Wilkinson by the Cincinnati Bengals) – through 2007, six of the eight drafted among the Top 6 picks have been “tremendously disappointing and or just flat-out busts,” as McShay put it, just as bluntly.

Will Fairley be Cortez Kennedy? Or Johnathan Sullivan?

“When I watch Fairley on tape, he flashes more than any other interior defensive lineman in the country,” McShay said. “But he also takes off as many plays as any defensive lineman considered in the first few rounds.

“Then you combine the concerns with the work ethic and some of the things you hear about him not being consistent and also the fact that he was a ‘one-year wonder.’ You add it all up, and that’s where I think the scare is.”

This is not a case of one analyst getting down on a player. Mike Mayock, draft analyst for the NFL Network, shares McShay’s concerns about Fairley and fondness for Dareus.

Mayock on Dareus: “This is my favorite player in the country this year. He has tremendous foot speed for a player his size. He can play the nose, the three-technique and showed he can play the five-technique. From my perspective, I don’t think he can possibly get past Denver at No. 2.”

Mayock on Fairley: “To me, he’s a lightning rod. I was at his Pro Day workout and from a foot-speed perspective it doesn’t get much better than what he can do. He ran through the bag drills and it was ridiculous. However, he’s a boom-or-bust guy. Right now, I have him here (ranked No. 8 overall), but he’s got more talent than that. Depending on what kind of kid he is, I could have him dropping out of the first round entirely.”

That might be going a bit too far. But Fairley’s loss obviously has been Dareus’ gain, as there is more to look at – and like – from the 6-3, 319-pounder from Alabama.

“You go back to 2009 and watch that tape. Then when he’s healthy in 2010, and you watch him every down and the versatility he provides. I just think he has a chance to be special,” McShay said. “I think he has a chance to be dominant on first and second downs. I think he also has a chance to provide enough pass rush.

“If Dareus is the first overall pick, I think Carolina made the right decision. If he doesn’t go 1, I’ll be shocked if he’s still on the board when we get to pick No. 4, really.”

Fairley greeted all these concerns with a series of smiles and an oh-really attitude at the scouting combine in February.

“The strength I think I bring to the field, I’m a great pass-rusher and a great run-stopper,” he said. “I try to dominate inside. I think that’s what teams are looking for and hopefully I can be that guy they look for to do it.”

Asked about the growing concerns that he is a “one-year wonder,” Fairley offered, “Basically how I’ve addressed it is, everybody’s entitled to their opinion. A lot of folks out there say I play the game the way it should be played.”

Fairley also brushed aside the obvious question about the comparisons to Dareus.

“He’s a great player. I’m a great player,” he said. “So there’s really no comparison.”

When the topic turned to Ndamukong Suh, the defensive tackle from Nebraska who was the second pick overall by the Detroit Lions last year, Fairley gave it up for a player who was voted NFL defensive rookie of the year after collecting 10 sacks.

“His play increased the value for Dareus and me a lot,” Fairley said. “Ndamukong Suh, he’s a great player. A great player. So it helped us out a lot, him coming out last year with the impact he had on the game. Now the D-tackles are starting to make some noise. So him coming out and making a lot of noise helped us out a lot.”

Then came the obvious question: If the Panthers, who hold the No. 1 pick, were down to Auburn quarterback Cam Newton and Fairley, who should they select?

“Is that a trick question?” Fairley said through a smile that was almost as wide as his shoulders. “I think that was a trick question.”

The real trick for Fairley will be overcoming the concerns about his game.

“I just have to show teams with the drills that I’m a great athlete and then in the interviews show them I’m a good person off the field, too,” he said. “Basically, I just have to show them that ‘one-hit wonder,’ that’s not in me.”

2011 Draft: DEFENSIVE LINE

A look at the positions heading into the April 28-30 NFL Draft (position and overall rankings and projections by Rob Rang, senior analyst for NFLDraftScout.com):

Rank Player, School Ht. Wt. Projection
1/3 DT Marcell Dareus, Alabama 6-3 319 First Round
2/5 DT Nick Fairley, Auburn 6-4 291 First Round
3/6 DE Da'Quan Bowers, Clemson 6-3 280 First Round
4/7 DE Robert Quinn, North Carolina 6-4 265 First Round
5/13 DE Cameron Jordan, California 6-4 287 First Round

What's it all mean? This is the best and deepest unit in this year’s draft class. It’s obvious because there are four D-linemen in Rang’s Top 7 and five in the Top 13, but also apparent because there are four more linemen in his Top 20: Wisconsin DE J.J. Watt at 15, Purdue DE Ryan Kerrigan at 17, Missouri DE Aldon Smith at 18 and Illinois DT Corey Liuget at 19. “It’s the best defensive end class I’ve seen,” said Mike Mayock, draft analyst for the NFL Network. “I’ve got eight or nine defensive ends with first-round grades. Typically, four defensive ends go in the first round.” Which, of course, makes this an atypical group.

What about? Stephen Paea. The defensive tackle from Oregon State stood the scouting combine on its collective barbell when he did an event-record 49 reps with 225 pounds in the bench press. Unlike those whose record he broke – Mitch Petrus, Mike Kudla and Leif Larsen – Paea has a game to go with his impressive strength. Rang ranks the 6-foot-1, 303-pound Paea No. 6 among the D-tackles, projects him to go in the second round and sums him up with this fitting line: “Wide as a Coke machine and just as difficult to move.”

What???s up with? Fairley. He was a force that Oregon could not reckon with in the BCS Championship game, as well as witty and engaging during his media interview at the scouting combine. But Fairley is having a difficult time shedding the “one-year wonder” tag in the evaluation process by some teams. He played at Copiah-Lincoln Community College before becoming a one-year starter – and wonder – at Auburn. Fairley also has other intangibles that teams must deal with before deciding he’s their answer. As Mayock put it, “He’s a great football player with all kinds of upside, and you just better know what you’re getting after you hand that guy millions of dollars.”

Seahawks situation? The D-line produced 24 of the team’s 37 sacks during the regular season, but 20 of them came from end duo of Chris Clemons (11) and Raheem Brock (nine). You can never have enough pass-rushers, especially with Brock scheduled to become an unrestricted free agent. But what the defense really could use is a five-technique end to supplement Red Bryant. That became a problem spot when Bryant went down in the Week 8 loss to the Raiders with a season-ending knee injury. They also could be in the market for a D-tackle, because Brandon Mebane is expected to draw considerable interest when he hits the free-agent market.

Game Rewind: Seattle Seahawks