The 2011 NFL draft class may indeed feature the best overall group of defensive linemen we've seen in a generation, but the truly elite depth of talent resides more in the group of defensive tackles than with the ends. Tackles like Baylor's Phil Taylor, Oregon State's Stephen Paea, and North Carolina's Marvin Austin might merit grades that would put them in the top half of the first round in lesser classes, but they're among the names with first-round talent who might slip out of that stanza entirely. As a result of this phenomenon, there are other players (LSU's Drake Nevis, Kenrick Ellis of Hampton, and Jurrell Casey from USC) who will provide even better value by fitting into defenses despite their current under-the-radar status.
But the two marquee tackles in this class are unquestionably Marcell Dareus from Alabama and Auburn's Nick Fairley. While Fairley presents the profile of the prototype gap penetrator, Dareus is the most versatile lineman among the 2011 draft prospects.
How do they measure up on tape?
Marcell Dareus, Alabama
Nick Fairley, Auburn
Pass rush: Dareus can play all over the line – his versatility is his strongest point and why he'd be a great asset to a rebuilding defense in particular – and he splits the double-teams he faces quite often with rip and swim moves. Of the tackles in this draft class, Dareus may have the most consistently aggressive and effective hand use. Better inside, though he can play the five-tech and cause some disruption there. Exceptional bull-rusher.
Pass rush: His strong suit. While a lot of tackles tend to wrestle and grapple against blockers, Fairley is always looking to push and split the gap and blast through to the quarterback. Looks to push upfield even as he's winning strength battles at the line. Best in pass rush as a three-tech in a one-gap spot, but can slide off a head-up center look and rip through blocks that way as well. Will use an array of hand moves and body movement to blast through. Quick enough to loop and stunt effectively.
Against the run: Can be the backbone of an elite defensive line, and his run defense is the key. Takes momentum blocking – especially slide protection – very well. Strong enough to go against the grain and split gaps. Agile enough to redirect in space and extends the play to the sideline. Blows up piles and can be dominant in power situations. Isn't fooled by misdirection; Dareus plays with a wide and moveable base.
Against the run: Uses his speed to fly through gaps and disrupt run plays as well. Good sense of direction for a guy who plays with his speed. Not exceptionally powerful and will get washed out of double teams, especially when blockers have longer to engage. Plays high in his stance at times and will lose the leverage battle as a result.
Off the snap: Decent speed and acceleration with his first step, though he's not elite in that department. Great strength when rising up to face a blocker and can push linemen back off their momentum.
Off the snap: Amazingly quick with his first move; Fairley will hit straight up or in a slanted "stunt 4-3" look. Fast enough to be moving through gaps before blockers even have their hands up and have established a strength base.
Tackling: Dareus is strong enough to make tackles with one hand if need be. Not exceptionally quick in space, but closes violently and form tackles very well. Intelligent and sound enough in his technique to close in on exceptionally agile athletes and prevent them from slipping out of containment.
Tackling: Quick and violent momentum tackler with the technique sense to wrap up, but his frequent late hits are a problem and could lead to his being a "marked man" once the NFL's disciplinary arm gets a hold of him.
Intangibles: Dareus was suspended for the first two games of the 2010 season for accepting improper benefits from an agent, but the sheer number of players around the NCAA suspended last season for similar infractions makes that difficult to fault. Lived with a sponsor family in college after a difficult childhood. No known character issues.
Intangibles: In addition to the late hits, Fairley can be drawn offside and this could be a bigger problem in the NFL when he's dealing with quarterbacks who have great cadences and can trip up defenders with their snap counts. Concerns about his work ethic have dogged Fairley for a long time; not known to be a gym rat or an exceptionally interested student of the game.
Conclusion: Like any great two-gap tackle, Dareus' value is based as much on his ability to occupy blockers and open gaps for other defenders. But he can make explosive plays, and if he was lined up in alternating one-tech/three-tech looks in a 4-3 front, he'd most certainly have the physical attributes to disrupt even more than he did in college.
Conclusion: A "buyer beware" player with nearly limitless physical potential, Fairley brings elite tackles like Kevin Williams(notes) and Warren Sapp to mind on the field. But when you factor everything in, he reminds more of the Albert Haynesworth(notes) who was so dominant in Tennessee in the few years before he went to Washington and everything fell apart. There is no question that at his best, Fairley is a top-three prospect and should become an elite NFL defender. It's just a matter of everything coming together and Fairley being a situation that will inspire him to go all out.
Comparison: Albert Haynesworth, Tennessee Titans (2006-2008).
Doug Farrar is a writer for Yahoo's Shutdown Corner blog, and a senior writer for Football Outsiders.