The Auburn Tigers won the Bowl Championship Series thanks to the play of two juniors, Heisman winning-quarterback Cam Newton and All-American defensive tackle Nick Fairley. Typically, the quarterback gets most of the credit for a win like this. But in a surprising 22-19 defensive battle, Fairley is the one being talked about the most.
His stat line of five tackles, three for loss, a sack and forced fumble is very impressive. He played a fine game on the college game's biggest stage. But despite all of the headlines and proclamations about his future as the number one pick, scouts breaking down his performance found plenty of things that need to improve before considering him a dominant NFL player.
Fairley certainly flashed the upper body and hand strength that he used all season to make 24 tackles for loss and 11.5 sacks against sophomore Carson York and seniors center Jordan Holmes and guard C.E. Kaiser. Multiple times he pushed York or Kaiser aside using pure strength to reach a running back coming through the hole. On a handful of other plays, he used violent hands and quickness to swim over and swipe his man aside to penetrate into the backfield.
His most impressive play came with 10 minutes left in the third quarter. A simple but strong swipe vs. York, who got caught leaning and lost his balance, allowed Fairley attack Thomas, planting him in the ground and forcing fumble that was recovered by Oregon.
The first-team All-SEC showed versatility by playing inside or outside, depending on the situation. Hie stood up against Holmes playing the one-technique spot, walking down the line while engaged to get into plays. He did this to create traffic on the play that resulted in a safety, as well as the team's big fourth-and-one to stop Oregon from scoring on one possession in the second half.
He even showed some nimble feet dropping into coverage on zone blitzes twice during the game, though a lack of fluidity and flexibility made it tough for him to make tackles in space.
The first series of second half, showed the good and bad of Fairley's game. He exploded off the snap on one play but left tackle Bo Thran (the line's only pro prospect), stood him up then pushed him back a couple of yards. Fairley did eventually stand his ground to swallow up RB LeMichael James, who was running with his head down in traffic instead of looking for the available cutback lane. Then Fairley looked what some call a "dirty" side, turning James helmet into the dirt after the play was over, receiving a personal foul penalty.
And two of his three tackles for loss came on busted assignments. In the first half, when York thought he had passed Fairley onto the already-engaged Holmes on one play. QB Darron Thomas was a sitting duck, but got rid of the ball for an incompletion. The second TFL came when Thomas failed to read an unblocked Fairley correctly, getting planted into the turf for a red zone sack instead of handing to RB LaMichael James, who would have walked into the end zone.
NFL teams won't be running that sort of play, and Fairley shouldn't count on too many missed assignments from veteran pro linemen. York and Kaiser are also not NFL-caliber players, which scouts will also note when grading this performance.
Fairley missed a couple of opportunities to make plays in the backfield once beating his blocker because he lacks the ability to bend. In fact, he stands straight up after the snap quite often, which will cause him leverage problems against NFL linemen. He also looked inconsistent in his ability to recover from cut blocks around the line of scrimmage.
On two occasions, it looked while watching live that Fairley exploded into the backfield with impunity, but Oregon's blocking schemes had actually taken advantage of his aggressiveness to allow him through while a screen pass made big yardage -- the second time resulted in the Ducks' first touchdown for James to the left side.
Fairley's stamina will also be questioned, because although he sat out a few series, he got lazy in fourth quarter. He stood around on multiple plays, including a crucial on third-and-10 on Oregon's final touchdown drive. He also guessed at the snap instead of reacting because he was tired, getting offsides call to put the ball on the two-yard line.
He was a non-factor on Oregon's late touchdown, and found himself on the ground for fifth time (once with help of a blitzing teammate) on the two-point conversion.
None of this changes the fact that Fairley will be a top ten pick because of his potential as a strong 4-3 defensive tackle or 3-4 five-technique. He had a very good game, using his strength and closing ability to take advantage of the opportunities Oregon gave him to make plays. It's not necessarily for a player to win every down to have a fantastic effort.
Fairley should be congratulated, and quite proud, of his play this year and his team's BCS title. Considering where the program was a couple of seasons ago, this was quite an accomplishment—and he has plenty of good tape for scouts to peruse.
But the things I've pointed out, watching this game through scouts' eyes, must be examined when the Panthers consider him for the number one overall selection in April. Sometimes the hype surrounding a performance overwhelms the truth of what was done on the field.
As for that comparison to Ndamukong Suh: Early in the year, I thought maybe we'd be talking about Fairley in those terms, but the Auburn star simply does not have the consistent motor or special agility to stand side-by-side with the former Nebraska All-American if lined up by draft grade.
When at his best, Fairley could be a Kevin Williams-type difference-maker at the next level. If he lacks the penetration ability to play the three-technique like Williams, he could be a very successful Jay Ratliff-type nose tackle. But some scouts consider him a potential one-year wonder, potentially make him the next Ryan Sims.But that's a gamble teams will be lining up to take.
--Contributed by NFLDraftScout.com Senior Analyst Chad Reuter