Denver’s #2 pick dilemma - prime or choice?

As the draft preparations wind their way down, most people believe that Denver is going to use the second pick in the draft on a defensive tackle and a lot of pixels have been dedicated to breaking down the choice that they face. John Elway has emphasized that Denver has to ‘hit’ on their higher picks this year. It’s always important, but as new Broncos head coach John Fox has noted, you hope that you won’t be in the #2 position again - so you'd best take full advantage of it. That could, in theory, lead Denver to choose the player who’s safer in the short term, ensuring that the team doesn’t find itself stuck in a JaMarcus Tussle: paying out big money for a player who is simultaneously very expensive and less than useful on the field, and/or in trouble off of it. The choice, if they go with a DT, appears to be between the 6’3”, 319 lb Marcell Dareus of Alabama and Auburn's 6’4”, 297 lb Nick Fairley. Fans, pundits and commentators have gone back and forth over the issue until it’s nearly run into the ground, but there’s been a tendency to talk about who is more NFL ready rather than who fits Denver’s needs the most expediently. I’ve followed the conversation with avid interest, watched what film I could lay my hands on, and I’ve also come to a conclusion.

I’d suggest taking an open-minded look at Russ Lande's commentary on the debate: Lande has nothing against Dareus, but he gives a solid analysis of why Fairley is a better choice for Denver. There’s one thing that I thought was absolutely essential in his note here and it deals with the rumors that Fairley takes plays off or fails to give full effort on every down. I filled up a hard drive with college games, and I watched Fairley carefully, fully willing to see and document the way that he handled that issue, either way. I couldn’t find those plays that he was taking off and, as it turns out, neither could Lande. Neither has Ted Bartlett, for that matter. But Ted and I don’t have access to teammates, coaches or trainers (a trainer can tell you if the player tends to overstate their injuries, something that the coaches may not even be up on). Lande does, and he couldn’t find anyone who thought that Fairley did anything but give full effort and competitiveness to every down. Here’s what Lande had to say:

Though Dareus is more pro-ready, a number of scouts have told me their teams rate Fairley as a better prospect. Fairley has received a lot of negative publicity for taking plays off, but we didn’t see evidence of it on film.  We spoke to a number of sources and every one of them said that he plays with excellent competitiveness and intensity on every snap. Although Fairley is young and may lack maturity, our sources say that he’s a good kid who won’t get into trouble. Every source we spoke to said that if the team he goes to has some veterans who can help mentor him, he will develop into a star in a few seasons. Based on pure talent, Fairley is clearly a level above Dareus.

What Lande states matches with what I have been able to see when I pull up an Auburn game - I didn’t have all the Auburn games, and it’s possible that I have missed a few downs that Fairley slacked on. Based on what I saw, though, Fairley doesn’t take plays off that I could find. He appeared to play and play hard, from whistle to whistle. This seems to be a media rumor that deserves to have heads of garlic stuffed in its mouth and a stake driven through its heart, because it keeps coming back and I keep not finding any specifics that fit. If Fairley is taking plays off, they weren’t apparent on the games that I watched.

I don’t know how Fairley and Dareus interview, and that’s a factor that may sway coaches, too. This could be where his purported immaturity come out - I’ve heard that rumor too - and if so, that’s fine. Again, this is a matter of access, and Denver isn’t going to tip its hand by saying how they really feel right now. What I can tell you is that between the two, Fairley is one of the few truly dominant players in this draft, and I believe that he has the higher upside. I like Dareus, and I don’t think that he’d be a bad pick, but I don’t think that he’s the same level of opportunity for the Broncos. I didn’t come to this conclusion easily - I’ve tried to read everything that compares the two, or just gives good info on either player and I’ve watched film because in the end, it’s how they play that you’re drafting for.

The concern here appears to be one of deferred gains - Dareus is probably more pro-ready, he unquestionably anchors better and has the lower body base of an elite run-stuffer - in other words, he’s a near-perfect nose tackle in a 4-3 and has the skill to play undertackle. As far as Denver and the draft go, however, it’s worth considering which position the Broncos are trying to fill. Do they want a bigger body who can stuff the run the way Dareus can? Sure they do. He could be an excellent addition to the line, but one of the things that seems to stay the same in the NFL is that teams with truly elite talent tend to keep winning, and often win right on through January. The Broncos have more need of an elite undertackle, a player who can slice, dice and jackhammer his way to the QB, consistently applying pressure, and that’s really not Dareus’ game. He’s more of a 4-3 NT, capable of two-gap play and a big body with good talent who can hold the point of attack and push the pile back, but he isn’t going to find the QB that often.

There is a weakness in Fairley’s game:  The fears of him being too light are overblown (he’ll play between 295 and 300 lb), but it’s not unreasonable to say that he plays too high at times, and when he does, he can be pushed back and to the side. However, a couple of years under Broncos strength and conditioning coach Rich Tuten’s tuition, coupled with defensive line coach Wayne Nunnely’s teaching of proper technique can solve that issue. The question is, in three years, which player is likely to do more for your team?

Dareus doesn’t seem to be on the same level as Fairley when it comes to backfield penetration - and that’s an area in which Denver could be justifiably labeled as a federally mandated cleanup site. Dareus isn’t going to be able to be taught to do what Fairley can do - slash inside and reach the QB for a hurry or even a sack (I like sacks and they’re obviously important - I just don’t see them as the Holy Grail that many other do. Consistent pressure means consistent hurries, and hurries, in turn, mean incompletions and turnovers). I see Fairley as always having an advantage there. Dareus will push the pile - Fairley will knife past it. Both have advantages, but Fairley’s is less common.

In other words, Fairley can be ‘coached up’ to improve his anchoring and keep his pad levels low, and when he does he can be nearly as much of a run-stopper as Dareus, even though he’ll lack Dareus’ bulk. Denver also has Kevin Vickerson at nose, and they just gave him a new two-year deal - he’s a solid NT. On the other hand, Dareus is a ‘safer’ pick (that’s a strange term, really - I don’t see Fairley as ‘unsafe’, which would be the alternative), but in three years, and perhaps sooner, I think that Fairley will be outplaying him consistently. Which do you go for? Player A, who has more of an NFL-ready game but will never be at the same level as Player B, or Player B, who can be coached to do what player A can, but who brings to the table a level of skill that Player A just won’t have? How much credence do you give the rumors that Fairley is immature and lacks the kind of work ethic that the NFL requires? That’s very much the question that Denver is facing if they go with either Fairley or Dareus, and it’s not an easy question to answer.

If that turns out to be the choice they’re down to, I hope that they look at the longer term and take Fairley. They can assign a couple of veterans, informally (and that’s where I still think that the recently released lineman Justin Bannan would have been more than worth the money, roster bonus or not) to keep an eye on him. Lots of rookies get into trouble not just because they move to a new city with a college-life approach and they suddenly have money to burn, but because they get to the new city, don’t know anyone and tend to hang out with their hangers on; people who do them no good, but who prey on their egos and wallets and act as their ‘entourage’. Such people are often parasites, and they’ve killed a lot of good players’ careers.

You counter that by making sure that solid veterans are talking to the youngsters from Day 1, showing them how to be a professional, how to care for their bodies at the NFL level; working out with them, showing them how to study in the film room and what to do off the job that won’t get them into trouble. LB Wesley Woodyard has talked about how former Denver teammate Andra Davis made his life much easier through mentoring and it’s a common theme among successful players. S David Bruton was picked out by the other Notre Dame veterans, and he’s also got a son to raise, which helps. But in both cases, someone showed them how to handle life in Denver - from finding a guy to fix the garage door to having someone to spend time with who will help keep the younger guy on the straight and narrow.

Fairley also has won over commentators like Pat Kirwan, who has access that I can only dream of. Kirwan tells a story of listening to Fairley talk about being down at halftime against Alabama, and how while the coaches were huddling in a side room, first Cam Newton and then Fairley himself talked to the team about what had to happen to win that game (they succeeded). That’s something that Fairley will be asked to do in a few years for an NFL team - to show leadership, to demonstrate it on the field and to talk to the defensive players and fire them up for the contest.

Which player is so elite that the others will look to him naturally in three years? Honestly - it’s probably going to be Fairley. That’s not a knock on Dareus, who I believe will be a top player, but the line in the NFL between top and elite can be as wide as the Continental Divide itself. If Denver wants to really become an elite team, they are going to need elite players. Not just top players - elite ones. They will need the kind of players who create mismatches consistently and who give offensive coordinators nightmares. It’s not a knock on Dareus to say that Fairley will be that kind of player. Dareus is a different body type and a different kind of player. Denver has a decent nose tackle in Vickerson and a gaping hole at undertackle, and Fairley is the best undertackle in this year’s draft by quite a bit. As I’m trying to set out in the rest of my pre-draft writing, there are options at both in later rounds, but the dropoff after Fairley is substantial.

Why, then, is Dareus such a popular pick in the mock drafts? Easy. Under Nick Saban, he’s been exposed to an NFL-style of play. He’s been a rock in the middle, has a great work ethic and consistently performs at a high level. There are no questions about his motor or his maturity. He’s scheme-flexible, which won’t matter much since Denver will be moving to a real 4-3; and while it’s great to be able to move him somewhat, he’s likely to be placed at NT or UT and left there most of the time. Like all NFL 4-3 DTs, he’ll be moved at certain times to create mismatches, to set up an overload blitz or to accomplish any of several specific goals on different plays. But for all the things that I love about this guy - and believe me, there’s a lot of them - I don’t see him having the ceiling that Fairley has. Rich McKay of Atlanta once noted that with the right undertackle, you can play almost anyone at the nose. Much as I consider the nose position essential, of the two, NTs are easier to find. Elite undertackles don’t come around often.

Back when B.J. Raji entered the draft in 2009, there was a lot of concern around him. He’d been accused of taking plays off, he had weight issues, he’d tested positive for cannabis and yet somehow he’s turned into exactly what Green Bay saw when they looked at him - an big, elite DL player who can be moved anywhere along the 3-4 line that Dom Capers loves. Raji was the perfect choice for that team at that moment, and Green Bay knew it. Denver should do the same.

Von Miller

If what Denver wants is to go with a 'safer' pick, I’d hope that they abandon the DT question altogether and go with Texas A&M linebacker Von Miller. At 6’3” and up to 246 lb, Miller is one of a very few choices in this year’s draft that I doubt can go wrong and he fully fits - nearly defines - the term ‘elite’. He’s never had a character problem, he’s durable (he played through an ankle injury in 2010 and doesn’t mind playing with pain), and his skill level is absolutely elite for the kind of smaller, faster (4.49-second 40 at his Pro Day) and highly disruptive linebacker that coach Fox has said that he wants. Denver also has a gaping hole at strongside linebacker. They also have one at Mike, but they can fill it in with some current options (Joe Mays, D.J. Williams, or the aforementioned Woodyard) or go to free agency for that. There will still be solid DTs, if not elite ones, in the second round. Actually, that’s not fully true - Oregon State's Stephen Paea may end up being elite at NT, and Marvin Austin out of North Carolina could be elite at either if he gets his head on right. Both may be available in the second round when Denver picks at #36; one or the other is almost sure to be. Each year, in the final decisions of the draft, teams usually go for more QBs and OTs than the pundits project. That’s fine - it helps out Denver, and may lead to a draft day trade-down.

Miller is talented in coverage, a necessary skill that is in short supply in Denver’s linebacking corps. He’s also an exceptional rush linebacker who will immediately help the Broncos' pass rush, not in collapsing the pocket, but in knifing through it to get the hurry or the sack. Miller just about destroyed everyone that they put up against him in the Senior Bowl. Pair him with DE Robert Ayers on the strongside and let Ayers occupy the OT (and, often, the TE or RG) while Miller handles the seek-and-destroy missions on the QB. Miller may struggle to cover the TE at first due to size differences, but I wouldn’t count him out even there. His quickness will permit him to jump routes, his hands will let him deflect the pass, and his tackling skills are excellent if there is a completion.

Patrick Peterson

Will LSU's Patrick Peterson be elite as a cornerback? It’s very possible, even likely. He’s got all the tools, but at 6’0” and 218 lb. he’s big for a cornerback (although at 4.32, he’s very fast) and given his weight, he may make the transition to safety sooner rather than later. Is the #2 pick too high for a tweener player with elite talent? In this case, I think that it is for one reason - Denver just has bigger problems. With Fox and new defensive coordinator Dennis Allen running the show, they are probably going to be playing a zone-based defense, so with Champ locked up for a few years, the Broncos can start looking for zone corners who match their team schematically. On a play-to-play basis, Denver has a bigger problem with the middle of the DL than they do at cornerback, where they are set for this year and have some talented youngsters to develop, most of whom should stay out of prison for the year.

Speaking of, Perrish Cox should improve if he can play. Meanwhile, fellow second-year player Syd’Quan Thompson has shown flashes of real skill as a nickel corner, and in this league, you’re in nickel far more often than not. Cassius Vaughn showed that he can return kicks, although there won’t be a ton to return given the new rules regarding kickoffs. Vaughn also showed some flashes of real skill as a cornerback, and at 5’11 and 193 lbs, he’s got the length that you like to see. Add to that his 4.4 speed (his low end was 4.36, so this guy’s very fast) and you’ve got a player who’s likely to be worth developing. I don’t have a clue as to what’s going to happen with Nate Jones or Andre' Goodman - Goodman’s tackling issues may become more of a concern with the move to zone, and Jones has always been a versatile spare body who can play some corner and some safety, but he excels at neither. Peterson will make some team very happy, but it’s very unlikely to be Denver.

Conclusion

When you look at the issue historically, it’s generally been easier to find top nose tackle material than it is to find elite undertackles. When people talk about the question of Dareus vs. Fairley, the conversation often lacks a recognition that the two players are likely to play different positions. Fairley’s play reminds me of Warren Sapp - Sapp also tended to play high, especially later in his career. He was nearly unstoppable when he kept his pad level low, and that’s about what I see in Fairley. Fairley isn’t at Sapp’s level yet, and I don’t think that he’s “this year’s …”, but there are similarities in their play. Sapp had some maturity issues when he came out, but it didn’t stop Tampa Bay from taking him, and it shouldn’t stop Denver from taking Fairley.

For those of you who prefer Dareus to Fairley, you’ll be getting equal time shortly, since I’m putting togeter Talegating pieces on both players and I’ll post one on Dareus soon. I think that Fairley is the better pick and I’ve said why, but I’ve also been a fan of Dareus for the past several months. Head to head, and taking Denver’s specific needs into account, I’d take Fairley, but they’re both solid players who would contribute quickly to the Broncos' defense. Ranked in order, I’d put it as a tie between Fairley and Miller at the top - both are elite players in their own right, but Miller is probably more NFL-ready. Dareus will be a solid player, even a top player, but he doesn’t have the kind of upside that Fairley or Miller does. Peterson isn’t the right player at the right time - it’s as easy as that. He’s also an elite talent, but the other two at that level fill roles that Denver needs more immediately.

Isn’t it draft day yet? Go Broncos!

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