Will Fairley be the first player celebrating in April?
Deciding which prospect to take with the number one overall pick is usually a relatively simple task. Months before the draft even starts, the team picking first often has identified its target and started negotiating a contract. This year was shaping up to be no different until consensus top pick, Andrew Luck, pulled his name from the running, returning to college and sending the Carolina Panthers scrambling. With no clear cut number one choice in this year’s class, the top blue chip talents are being run through a gauntlet of evaluations in order to discover which one is the surest bet to be an NFL star.
One name that keeps coming up in the conversation is Auburn defensive tackle, Nick Fairley. While a dominant defensive lineman seems like an obvious choice for a new Panthers coach, Ron Rivera, who prides himself on defense, Fairley is no lock to find himself at the top of the draft board. With two tremendously talented defensive tackles recently making the same transition to the pro game, in Ndamukong Suh and Gerald McCoy, it’s important to see where Fairley stacks up against them in order to figure out the type of impact he could make at the next level.
1)Suh 2)Fairley 3) McCoy
Much like his teammate at Auburn, Cam Newton, Fairley is hurt by the fact that he has only one season of starting experience as an NCAA division one talent. A JUCO transfer, Fairley played much of his first season at Auburn as a reserve, totaling only 14 tackles and 1.5 sacks before bursting onto the scene in 2010. Statistically speaking, Fairley was the most dominant tackle during this past season, notching 60 tackles, 24 tackles for a loss and 11.5 sacks.
The kind of season that Fairley put together still pales in comparison to Suh’s senior season where he compiled 82 tackles, 12 sacks and also added an interception. Though, what really stands out about Suh is the consistency in his production. During his junior season he totaled 76 tackles, seven sacks and two interceptions and also was able to add 34 tackles and a sack during his sophomore season and another three sacks in his freshman season. The overall consistency in his production made him more of a sure bet coming out of college than Fairley.
However, Fairley offered more production than McCoy, who always flashed the skills and measurable, but never put together a season that rivaled his competitors. In three seasons, McCoy never made more than 32 tackles or recorded more than six sacks, and despite playing three full seasons, he finished with only one more total sack than Fairley and fewer total tackles.
1)McCoy 2)Fairley 3)Suh
One of the physical skills that McCoy holds over his two fellow tackles is the speed of his first step. While he never notched the “wow” plays that the other two did, his pure quickness off the ball is unmatched. He can pop off the snap and shoot the gaps as well as any defensive tackle to come out of college in recent memory.
If it weren’t for McCoy, we’d likely be saying the same thing about Fairley. On multiple occasions this year, Fairley seemed to be in the backfield before the quarterback was able to finish his exchange under center. When focused, his first step is unmatched by anybody currently playing college football.
Not that Suh is any slouch in the speed department, but he falls just short of his rivals in this category.
1)Suh 2)Fairley 3)McCoy
Before he was abusing NFL quarterbacks, Suh had already proved that he had incredible strength. While most defensive players coming out of college seem to be stronger in either their upper or lower half, Suh possesses unique strength throughout his entire body, allowing him to both rush the passer and anchor against the run, taking on multiple blockers if needed. But perhaps most impressively, his strength doesn’t come in spurts. He plays with the same power throughout an entire game.
Fairley and McCoy on the other hand, are stronger in certain areas than others. Fairley has a strong upper half, but could improve his lower body strength, while McCoy still needs to gain more upper body strength to finally be able to utilize his physical talents to their full potential. However, on the field, Fairley is the stronger player. He plays with a physicality that McCoy has yet to adopt. In fact, at times he rivals Suh, but is held back by the fact that his physicality is not consistent, but rather shows up on certain plays.
1)Suh 2)McCoy 3)Fairley
While much of the consistency advantage enjoyed by Suh and McCoy has to do with their experience at the top level of competition, Fairley also suffers here because he is the only player of the three who seems to take plays off. Some of it may have to do with overall fitness, which showed up in the National Championship game against Oregon where Fairley appeared to be sucking wind throughout much of the game. However, Fairley has also been known to lower his performance to match the talent on the other side of the line as was observed when he totaled three tackles against Kentucky and only one solo tackle in the match-up versus Mississippi. On the other hand, Suh and McCoy showed the same effort on every play, during every game and while Fairley may have been equally, or more, explosive, he sometimes seemed to disappear, which never happened to his rivals.
1)McCoy 2)Suh 3)Fairley
While most of Fairley’s character concerns are merely speculation at this point, there have been reports of his questionable work ethic. When paired with his tendency to take plays off, it’s not hard to rank Fairley behind McCoy and Suh, who led both vocally and in their actions, and were two of the hardest working and well-respected players in college football a year ago.
1)Suh 2)Fairley 3)McCoy
Because Fairley has an incredible first step, many people forget that he is 6’5” and weighs over 300 pounds. It’s that combination of size and quickness that makes him such a versatile prospect. He has a disruptive speed to play the three technique as a 4-3 DT, but he also has the size and upper body strength to anchor against the run and hold down the five technique as a 3-4 DE. However, his quickness would be neutralized by playing the latter position, as he is often unable to be a disruptive force while still keeping containment. Once he shoots into the backfield, he plays with an all-or-nothing type of aggressiveness.
Suh, on the other hand, has the discipline and overall strength to be equally effective in either position. While he lacks Fairley’s quickness, he has the ability to be disruptive while also keeping containment. This comes from his ability to play aggressively while keeping his football instincts and knowing his assignments.
McCoy, on the other hand, is almost strictly limited to playing 4-3 defensive tackle. Despite being close to 300 pounds, he lacks the overall strength to hold his own at the point of attack in a 3-4 scheme.
1)Suh 2)Fairley 3)McCoy
While Fairley is incredibly talented, there hasn’t been as talented and consistent a defensive player as Suh to come out in recent years. He has an overall strength advantage on Fairley, as well as having displayed more consistent production, superior work ethic and a higher football IQ.
However, despite the fact that McCoy also has fewer question marks surrounding his attitude and preparation, he lacks the “wow” factor that Fairley brings with his combination of explosiveness and strength. Paired with his scheme versatility, that makes Fairley a more complete prospect than the Tampa Bay defensive tackle.
However, the character concerns will still hang over the Auburn product until he is able to address his supposed laziness and display the work ethic needed to succeed at the next level. Until then, he will remain a tremendous talent who could fail to develop into a consistent NFL playmaker on the defensive side of the ball.