With the 2010 NFL season in the books, it's time to turn our eyes to the NFL draft, and the pre-draft evaluation process. Before the 2011 scouting combine begins on Thursday, we'll be taking a closer look at the 40 draft-eligible players who may be the biggest difference-makers when all is said and done.
We continue our series with Auburn defensive tackle Nick Fairley. After missing out on his first shot at Auburn due to academic restrictions, Fairley came out of junior college before the Tigers' 2009 season and started to heat up in the second half of his first year there. Still, few were prepared for the season Fairley put up in 2010 -- he amassed 11.5 sacks (nine solo), 21 quarterback hurries and 21 tackles for loss -- all at defensive tackle, and all with his status as the undeniable focus of every opposing offensive line.
That got him the Lombardi Award, and Defensive MVP Award in Auburn's BCS Championship win over Oregon, and the possibility of a first overall pick. According to the Charlotte Observer, the Carolina Panthers, possessors of the No. 1 selection, have already been doing background calls on Fairley. A solid combine could put him at the top of a draft class in which every single player seems to have at least one, "yeah, but..."
Pros: Fairley is explosive off the snap, and he's always looking for a gap to push through and get to the quarterback or ballcarrier. Bulls back single blockers with alarming strength and can split double-teams with that same strength as well as an effective series of hand moves. Slants very quickly off blocks in front of him and can push past blockers at an angle.
Fairley has the size and disruptive ability to be a very effective three-tech in a four-man front, but he's also stout enough to play straight over center in a three-man or hybrid front, making him a potential franchise player in just about any defense. Engages only as long as he has to -- even before he's winning strength battles on plays, he's always looking upfield. As a one-tech, forces the flow away from him and draws double-teams. Has a great inside roll to the quarterback; starts in a straight line and closes in very well. Sure tackler with violent intentions.
Cons: Has had frequent and well-documented issues with an inability to play inside the rules; he's developed a reputation as a cheap-shot artist. He's received multiple penalties for late hits and has a tendency to get nasty after the whistle. Can be drawn offside, and his aggressiveness can be used against him in a general sense. His after-throw quarterback hits, while legal and unflagged at the NCAA level, will likely draw him some flags and fines in the NFL, especially if his rep travels with him. Questions about his work ethic will have to be put to rest.
Conclusion: Fairley isn't quite the Warren Sapp-type player who demolished offenses when he was in Tampa Bay, but he reminds of the Sapp who played a bit more upright in Oakland from 2004 through 2006 and started to allow an "illegal" side to his play. That's not to say that Fairley doesn't have the talent to be elite at that level, but he'll have to clean up his act on the field before he can take that next step. The interview portions of his scouting combine week will be crucial; it may be that he's just a severe Type-A guy who needs that aggression corralled by the right kind of coaching. If that happens, look out, because a properly directed Nick Fairley could be a very dangerous individual ... in all the right ways.
NFL Comparison: Warren Sapp, Oakland Raiders, 2004-2007
More Shutdown 40
40 -- Rodney Hudson, OG, Florida State | #39 - Luke Stocker, TE, Tennessee
| #38 - Phil Taylor, DT, Baylor | #37 - Ryan Mallett, QB, Arkansas | #36 -- Leonard Hankerson, WR, Miami | #35 -- Danny Watkins, OL, Baylor | #34 - Stephen Paea, DT, Oregon State | #33 -- Christian Ponder, QB, Florida State | #32 - Mike Pouncey, OL, Florida | #31 - Nate Solder, OT, Colorado | #30 - Kyle Rudolph, TE, Notre Dame | #29 - Mikel Leshoure, RB, Illinois | #28 - Cameron Heyward, DE, Ohio State | #27 - Akeem Ayers, OLB, UCLA | #26 - Brandon Harris, CB, Miami | #25 - Gabe Carimi, OT, Wisconsin | #24 -- Jake Locker, QB, Washington| #23 -- Jimmy Smith, CB, Colorado| #22 - J.J. Watt, DE, Wisconsin | #21 - Corey Liuget, DT, Illinois| #20 - Derek Sherrod, OT, Mississippi State | #19 - Torrey Smith, WR, Maryland | #18 - Ryan Kerrigan, DE, Purdue | #17 - Mark Ingram, RB, Alabama | #16 - Adrian Clayborn, DE, Iowa | #15 - Tyron Smith, OT, USC | #14 - Aldon Smith, OLB, Missouri | #13 - Anthony Castonzo, OT, Boston College | #12 - Cam Newton, QB, Auburn| #11 -- Cameron Jordan, DL, Cal| #10 - Blaine Gabbert, QB, Missouri | #9 - Julio Jones, WR, Alabama | #8 - Prince Amukamara, CB, Nebraska | #7 - Marcell Dareus, DT, Alabama | #6 -- Robert Quinn, DE. North Carolina | #5 - Von Miller, OLB, Texas A & M | #4 -- A.J. Green, WR, Georgia | #3 - DaQuan Bowers, DE, Clemson