Coming into the home stretch for the 2011 NFL Draft, Denver fans are still facing considerable uncertainty on the fate of the #2 pick. The lack of a CBA means that trades cannot involve players already under contract (in theory) to the teams involved. It also means that we can’t know if there will be a rookie cap that would make the pick more enticing, since the money would be less than the astronomical guarantees that the top draftees obtain. Last, you usually see a team that really needs a certain position - OT and QB are the two most common, but WR and sometimes RB have come into play - trading up. This year’s QBs are a mixed lot - probably not the strongest of QB classes means that less teams are ready to mortgage their additional picks in order to get X player.
That doesn’t mean that such a trade is impossible - in the NFL, it only takes a single covetous team to make that upward move. But they have so many unusual factors that I’ve consistently avoided factoring trades into my draft pick discussions. There are four players who are of interest to the Broncos, and two of them play the position that Denver is weakest in - defensive tackles Nick Fairley of Auburn and Marcell Dareus of Alabama. The other two are phenom cornerback from LSU Patrick Peterson and all-everything linebacker Von Miller out of Texas A&M. Today, it’s Fairley who merits a long look.
Fairley was born Jan. 23, 1988, the son of Paula Rogers and Herbert Rogers. His hometown is Mobile, Alabama, and he attended Williamson High School, where he played 5A football under Coach Bobby Parrish. Fairley was tasked to play on both sides of the ball, and he liked the opportunity to play more football each week. His athleticism quickly bore fruit on both offense and defense, as well as special teams. As Cicero once said of Julius Caesar’s most famous campaign, Gallia est omnis divisia in partes tres - All Gaul is divided into three parts. That’s also true of football, with offense, defense and special teams, and Fairley liked playing them all. As a senior, he graded out at an impressive 97% on the offensive line, playing both tackle and guard, which has continued to contribute to his ability to confound offensive linemen - he’s played the position and understands what they’re going to try to do. He also caught 5 passes for 150 yards at tight end. He was equally effective on the defensive line, making over 90 tackles. He was a 5A Lineman of the Year finalist and was named to the 5A All-State team by the ASWA. He was also ranked 28th among offensive guards and 15th overall in Alabama by Rivals.com, while ESPN had him ranked #32 at offensive tackle. He was selected to the Mobile Press-Register's Elite 18 Alabama recruits list and the paper's Super Southeast 120 and played in the AHSAA North/South All-Star game as a junior. It was clear that he had a potential future in football.
While it’s often considered a red flag to NFL scouts if a player attends community or junior college, Fairley had to improve his academics, and also decided to prepare himself academically for a challenging major. He played at Copiah-Lincoln Community College in Wesson, Miss., under coach Glenn Davis. He redshirted in 2007 to focus on his studies and to obtain the opportunity to potentially play an extra year of college ball, but was All-Region XII in the State of Mississippi in 2008 at defensive tackle. He had 63 tackles including nine for loss and seven quarterback sacks in seven games. He played like a man among boys.
Transferring to Auburn University
Fairley came to Auburn expecting his level of play to be a continuation of community college and had a shock. His play at the community college level didn’t go unnoticed, but the SEC is a different environment. Fairley began his next year at Auburn University, playing at the same DT position for the Tigers. His talent level quickly became apparent - despite common statements about how he was or is a ‘one-year wonder’, the reality is that he destroyed his competition in high school, then in junior college and he started his first career game for Auburn in their season opener vs. Louisiana Tech by recording five tackles with half a TFL, one fumble recovery and two QB hurries - hardly the stuff of a one-year wonder. He was the low man on the totem pole that year for three reasons - first, his own expectations, which weren’t high enough. Second, Auburn head coach Gene Chizik didn’t have a complete grasp on the transferred player, and third the young player had to learn Chizik’s exacting system: that combination was part of what led to Fairley only starting two games in 2009.
Fairley himself admits that he wasn’t prepared for how much bigger, stronger and faster the players in the SEC were, but the tutelage from defensive line coach Tracy Rocker showed him how to make that leap, a fact that suggests that Fairley is very coachable. Fairley has also been upfront about taking responsibility for his need to increase his effort. However, when he was on the field, he still showed the promise and potential that had led him to Auburn, even though he lacked the technique. Like many talented younger players, he was used to dominating without it, but quickly understood its necessity. He did record 28 tackles, despite only having two starts. It was simply a prologue to his starting role in 2010, much as a freshman year in a four-year college experience can lead to starting as a sophomore. Nick Fairley took what he had learned in 2009 in 2010, and he used it to show the entire nation what he was capable of doing.
At least the negative term uses the word ‘wonder’, because 2010 was a wonder to watch for Nick. It’s perhaps easiest to just list the awards from 2010 - when you talk about a one-year wonder, it’s commonly a gentle or not-so-gentle knock on the player. You’re rarely talking about a guy who wins the Lombardi Award for the nation’s best lineman or linebacker. Ironically, it was his position coach, Tracy Rocker, who was the only other Tiger in history to win that award. Fairley is the same guy who set two Auburn University single-season records in 2010 with 24 tackles for loss and 11.5 sacks. In Auburn's 4-3 system, Fairley had 60 tackles and also led the team with 21 quarterback hurries, two forced fumbles, and two fumble recoveries last season.
And then, well, it went like this:
- Defensive MVP during the BCS National Championship game versus Oregon
- Bronco Nagurski finalist
- Walter Camp All-America Team
- Associated Press SEC Defensive Player of the Year
- FWAA All-America Team
- Sporting News First-Team All-America
- SI.com First-Team All-America
- Associated Press First-Team All-America
- CBSSports.com First-Team All-America
- Rivals.com First-Team All-America
- Coaches' First-Team All-SEC
- Associated Press Unanimous First-Team All-SEC
- Phil Steele First-Team All-SEC
- ESPN.com All-SEC
- Outland Trophy semifinalist
- CBSSports.com Midseason All-America
- Phil Steele's Midseason All-America First-Team
- SEC Defensive Lineman of the Week (11/26-27)
- SEC Defensive Lineman of the Week (10/23)
- SEC Defensive Lineman of the Week (10/16)
- SEC Defensive Lineman of the Week (10/2)
- SEC Defensive Player of the Week (9/13)
So, yes, in one sense you could call him a ‘one-year wonder’. But seriously, what a year it was. Yes, he took two years (redshirting one) to attend a community college, and he played magnificently for them. The competition at high school and community college wasn’t of the same caliber as the SEC, so his accomplishments up to that point have to be viewed with that in mind. But after he arrived at Auburn and learned the DT position under Rocker and the game under Chizik in 2009, I think that it’s fair to say that he left an indelible impression on the football-minded of the nation the following year.
He certainly left one on the Oregon Ducks in the Championship game. They couldn’t stop him. They could barely slow him down, and they were the #2 team in the nation that year. Seven All-American awards isn’t something that happens to a lot of players. Adding the defensive MVP of the Championship game, four Lineman of the Week awards and one Defensive Player of the Week award, as well as the Lombardi Award? Most folks use the ‘one-year wonder’ designation for a player that they just aren’t sure of. If you’re not sure of Fairley, just take some time to look at the film.
By the way, many players who are just trying to get through college, in Shannon Sharpe’s words, “Thank You, Lordy!”, will major in areas such as criminal justice, which doesn’t require mathematics and is a fairly easy major as such things go. Nick went a very different route - despite a failure to work hard on his studies in high school, he majored in philosophy. It’s an interesting commentary on a young man who is as complex as he is talented.
Fairley was going to be drafted highly, regardless of whether or not he had a good Combine. And, he didn’t have a good Combine - he had a great one. He ran a 4.84, which is very fast for a DT - by comparison, Iowa DE Christian Ballard, at 6’5” and 297 lb, ran the fastest at 4.75. Nick had a 31-inch vertical leap, just half an inch less than Ballard again, who led the group with a 31.5. Fairley ran the three-cone drill in just 7.14, behind leader Brandon Blair who posted a time of 7.07. Blair also lead the group in the broad jump - Fairley was one inch behind him, with a distance of 113 inches to Blair’s 114. Blair also took the 20-yard shuttle with a time of 4.37 - Fairley logged in with 4.56. The worst time was 5.06. Fairley also impressed all viewers in the skill drills. He passed on the bench press.
It was a great performance by a player who could have coasted without greatly affecting his draft status. It gives lie to the idea that Fairley takes plays off and coasts on the field. That’s a frequent comment that rarely can be ascribed to any particulars - someone said it, others picked it up and voila! - it became conventional wisdom. Fairley has endured a lot of that. It’s worth taking a look at the knocks on Fairley that should concern any team who is considering using a high first-round pick on him.
Knocks and Talents
The first knock against Fairley is that he plays dirty at times. That’s a common comment, and this is one that isn’t without some basis in fact. He’s an extremely emotional player on the field, and sometimes it’s gotten away from him. I’ve watched enough 'highlight’ tape to know that at times he became caught up in the moment and behaved badly, usually by tackling the QB in a way that resembles a body slam. He won’t be permitted to slam the QB to the turf the way he did at Auburn in the NFL. It’s something that he kept under firm control in the BCS Championship game, and he’ll have to hold to that. I won’t duck the issue, but I don’t think that it’s likely to be a major factor in the NFL, either. Fairley goes from being a fairly quiet, introspective man to becoming a beast on the football field. He’s had to learn to play violently, yet in control of himself, and it’s been a process. He commented recently,
I have that switch, I do. When I hit the field, when I go play the game, it's on. It's always on. That's how I play; that's how I've always played since I was 8 years old.
Just to balance the equation, Cleveland’s GM Tom Heckert was asked if he thought that Fairley was a dirty player. Heckert said,
No, not at all. I think he's a tough player. I guess there's a fine line. I was fortunate to have Jon Runyan play for us in Philadelphia for a long time, and some people called him dirty, but he's a tough player. Those guys, it's not after-the-whistle stuff. I think it's more toughness than being a dirty player.
Another knock has been that he takes plays off and doesn’t always give his best effort. I watched all the film I could get on Fairley, and in all honesty, I couldn’t see it. Russ Lande of the Sporting News had access to all of Fairley’s games, and he couldn’t see it. Others had the same experience. So did Pat Kirwan, who eventually put it this way:
Too many people at the NFL Annual Meeting felt there are some minor doubts about Fairley. Is it his interviews? His junior college track record, or even his casual style? I've interviewed him four times and he's a football player.
Kirwan couldn’t find those plays either. A few draft pundits said that they did.
The next knock on Fairley is almost laughable - that he weighed in for Combine at 6’3” and 291 lb. The pundits were aghast - the NFL doesn’t like DTs who weigh under 300 lb! Fairley should be dropping down the boards! And, the Mel Kiperesque commentators of the NFL world did drop him by several slots. This hurricane in a Gatorade cup forgot that for the time leading up to the Combine, Fairley had done the smart thing - since he was being tested on things like footspeed in shorts, his ability to jump, run and cut in very limited and specific ways, he came in at his lowest comfortable weight and blew the Combine away.
Fairley has consistently played at about 297 or so, which is what he came to his Pro Day weighing. With a couple of years under an NFL strength and conditioning coach like Denver's Rich Tuten, he should be able to add 5-10 lb without sacrificing speed or quickness. It’s beyond a non-issue - in fact, training for explosiveness and leaping ability to improve his scores on drills is something that no one will ever ask him to do again, yet his record at Combine will always stand. Dropping the weight and training for exactly what he was going to be asked to do was a smart move on his part. His Pro Day showed that he can test that well at his normal weight, too.
More recently, there has been a small furor over the fact that he’s had to miss some flights and reschedule some meetings with prospective teams. When I first heard about this one I thought, “Are you kidding me?” This ignored the fact that it’s still late winter and early spring, and multiple airports have been and are being closed, and flights are commonly being canceled due to inclement weather. I flew into Denver the first weekend in April, and the gate next to mine was sweating out a four-hour-and-counting weather-related delay. It’s also true that many prospects have this problem every year and the teams don’t sweat it. If he was anyone else, this wouldn’t even have come up. Once the media decides that a player has a ‘problem with attitude’, they seem to move heaven and earth to ‘prove’ the theory. Dan Pompei, in his Sunday NFP column had this to say:
The hubbub about Nick Fairley missing a flight for a team visit wasn’t such a big deal in the eyes of many front office men. As one executive told me, prospects routinely miss flights. He said a couple missed flights for visits to his team this month, including one player who is expected to be chosen near the top of the draft.
So much for that.
One of the common statements has been that ‘sources close to the Auburn program’ - whatever that means - have raised concerns about his off-field focus. No details - as usual - have been mentioned, and I haven’t heard exactly what those concerns are. Well, Marcell Dareus - who I have a lot of respect for - is into watching cartoons in his downtime. Is that a lack of focus? It isn’t exactly studying philosophy, certainly. But this is the kind of vague, meaningless commentary that some players get caught up in every year, mostly without any real basis. It’s irritating, it creates an irrational bias against the player and it’s dishonest. What, if any, are the specifics?
There are legitimate weaknesses in his - and any player’s - game. My favorite quote of the draft season came from Peter King. In his Monday Morning Quarterback of April 18, he wrote,
I think this was the funniest thing I heard all week in putting together my mock draft. It came from a longtime pro personnel director: "By the time we get done looking at these guys, none of 'em can play."
It’s not only true, but it constantly fuels arguments about this player and that one, because the scouts are required to note weaknesses, no matter how minor they may be, and the scouts don’t usually mention the level of those weaknesses (or even if they’ve been overcome) in their reports. Those can get quickly blown out of proportion - go back and look at some of the predraft reports of HOF players. It’s eye-opening.
Todd McShay summed up (ESPN Insider) what nearly every source said about Fairley’s Pro Day:
Defensive tackle Nick Fairley was the other headliner at Auburn's pro day, and he did not disappoint. Fairley was six pounds heavier than at the NFL combine but looked more fluid and explosive than any 297-pounder should. Fairley took part in only position drills but wowed the scouts in attendance with his foot quickness during back work and his agility during cone drills. His burst out of every cut and change of direction was remarkable.
That typifies everything I’ve read on that day’s performance.
Strengths and Weaknesses
Every player has weaknesses, in degree. Here are some things that I think that he’ll need to work on in his NFL career:
Despite his major in college, there have been concerns about his ability to quickly grasp an NFL playbook. He didn’t put out much academic effort in high school, and learned a hard lesson. Denver spent a long time with him during their visit - they know, at this point, whether he’s got troubles in that area or not. It’s a concern with every player making the jump to the NFL, and Fairley’s no exception. Some feel that he’s got a questionable IQ. Perhaps, perhaps not. His football IQ is being thoroughly investigated by Denver and Carolina, among others.
Nick does have a weakness in that he can be washed out of plays at times by being pushed back and to the side. He doesn’t have the ‘sand in the bubble’ that Alabama's Marcell Dareus or Oregon State's Stephen Paea have, the ability to really anchor in the run defense. He’s more likely to slash past a blocker and attack the ballcarrier than he is to stand his blocker up and move him out of the way. On the other hand, Dareus, while no slouch as a rusher, doesn’t have the kind of quickness, athleticism and ability to move that Fairley has. If you could put the two of them together, you’d have a nearly perfect NFL defensive tackle.
What do we know about his skills? We know that he flat out dominated the entire SEC and finished the year by dominating the BCS Championship game. He plays very much like Warren Sapp - another brilliant player who had questions about his conduct at draft time. Fairley even has some of the same weaknesses - he plays too high at times, just as Sapp did, especially in Sapps’ later years. That contributes to getting stood up and moved aside, but it’s a coachable issue.
As far as his ability to lead, Kirwan tells a story here that you might want to read. It talks about the Alabama game, with Auburn behind and struggling at halftime. Cam Newton spoke, and then Fairley got up and said his piece. Auburn went on to win. Denver needs leaders badly, and for all the focus on how Nick might need to be mentored upon leaving college, this is a guy who can learn a system and then motivate those around him to make the necessary things happen to pull out a win. Brian Dawkins won’t likely be around more than another year, and defensive leadership is going to be essential if the Broncos want to turn this franchise around. Nick may have to learn to control his emotions better, but I’ll take that over players who don’t play with enough of theirs. There’s a middle road, but give me a player who dominates and takes enormous pride in that every time.
Doug Farrar of Football Outsiders had a great point that I’ll add:
Fairley also has the potential to disrupt over or off center, by way of the Stunt 4-3 move made famous by Joe Greene. I saw Suh use this technique, which has the one-tech tackle lining up between center and guard at a 45-degree angle, and the other tackle stunting through the gap, and Fairley brings a similar destructive impulse to the technique. He’s also adept with pure inline power, blowing guards back in a way that makes me think he’ll be able to do the same thing at the next level.
Since his in-line power is something that has been questioned at times, that’s a telling point. His athleticism in concert with his power, speed and strength is a rare combination. Finding elite players at under tackle is a rarity by itself, and that’s something that I haven’t heard enough.
When you add up the factors that Fairley brings to the table, I have to admit that I don’t see a better way for Denver to go. They’ve gone many years without a consistent ability to get pressure on the quarterback. Elvis Dumervil is a great player and I hope that he has a lot of years left, but you can’t run a pressure scheme with a single player’s skill. You need to consistently make that a priority over a series of drafts and collect several players, including free agents, who contribute in that fashion without sacrificing the ability to stop the run. I can’t think of a better way to start this next phase than by drafting Nick Fairley.
Bucky Brooks put it this way:
As a junior college transfer, you wonder if he can sustain that kind of play over the long haul. I'm not necessarily sure of that opinion based on watching him dominate the SEC, and I'm convinced he will be an impact player as a pro.
So am I. If Denver pulls the trigger on him at #2, they’ll gain a player with the ability to become one of the elite defensive under tackles in the NFL, a leader in the locker room and on the field, a player whose skills are matched by a fervent desire to win. It’s something that they haven’t had in far, far too long - many teams struggle to find the right player at under tackle for decades. It’s not known by the casual fan, but it’s essential to stopping the run and to creating tackles for loss, as well as the more commonly looked for sacks and QB hurries. There are some good - very, very good - 4-3 nose tackles in the 2011 Draft. But there isn’t a single player who I can see as close to Fairley’s level as a penetrating, one-gap under tackle, and there hasn’t been for a long time with a single exception:
Last year's second-overall pick Ndamukong Suh was a better overall player, certainly, and you can look at what he’s done for Detroit already. Now consider how much better Denver would be with a man like that dominating, attacking the QB, drawing and beating double teams and making offensive coordinators factor him in on every play. Think of how much more effective he’d make Dumervil, especially with Robert Ayers collapsing the pocket right next to Fairley. As current Falcons president and former Bucs and Falcons GM Rich McKay once pointed out, with a good enough under tackle, you can play nearly anyone at nose. Incumbent Bronco Kevin Vickerson may not be Pro Bowl material, but he’s a step up from just anyone. And, I’m still a little hopeful that Denver will be able to talk the recently-released Justin Bannan into returning - a faint hope, but it’s there just the same.
With the exception of Suh, it’s been years since I saw a player with Fairley’s kind of skillset and potential at a position at which Denver has a hole the size of the Yellowstone Volcano. He has a variety of counters and spin moves and is surprisingly technically proficient, having quickly learned all that coach Rocker taught him. He’s equally effective with the rip and swim moves. He’s talented at taking on and defeating double teams, and you can’t stop him with just one player. He’s got excellent recognition skills and is adept at picking up screens. He has a jab step to the outside and one to the inside, both of which he uses to set up the OL player(s) assigned to him by coming back the opposite way of the jab. His hand quickness is a match to his overall speed, and he knocks linemen’s hands away exceptionally well. He’s powerful, and he’s going to get stronger and even better on his technique.
So, there it is. One of four players - Fairley, Dareus, Miller and Peterson - will almost certainly be a Bronco come Thursday night. I’ll give the final word to Jon Gruden, who I enjoy as a commentator more than I did as a coach:
Dareus, if you saw his tape from two years ago it was even better than what it was this year. He got hurt in the Arkansas game. That ankle lingered throughout the season. He missed the (first two games) because of a rules violation. But I think Dareus is a different player than Fairley. Dareus to me is a three-position player in the 3-4 front. He is legitimate sheer power. This is a power player. He is rare. You’ve seen the physical nature that this guy has put together where he’s a rare combination of explosive, physical play. And a guy that’s well-versed under Nick Saban.
Whereas Fairley is an under tackle. He’s a guy that reminds me of Kevin Williams of the Minnesota Vikings. He’s a one-gap penetrator. He’s the premier inside pass rusher in this draft if you ask me. The sacks and hits he put on quarterbacks were not by accident. He, again, has one year of production, really. I think he’s on the rise. I think he’s getting better.
I couldn’t agree more. Go Broncos - and bring on that draft!