Each week, we rewind the game film to highlight the star-worthy performances that could impact the 2011 NFL Draft rankings:
1. Auburn quarterback Cam Newton emerged as the Heisman frontrunner with his record-breaking performance against LSU, but it was his teammate, junior defensive tackle Nick Fairley, who made the greater impression on NFL scouts. The 6-foot-4, 298-pound Fairley registered six tackles, including 3½ tackles for loss and 2½ sacks, in the SEC battle of unbeatens and is leaping up draft boards. The dominance Fairley showed in the high-profile contest was similar to the game Ndamukong Suh had against Colt McCoy and the Texas Longhorns in last year's Big 12 Championship Game.
|Nick Fairley dominated against LSU with 2 1/2 sacks and 3 1/2 tackles for loss. (Getty Images)|
The more lasting recognition Fairley might earn could come in April. Only a junior, Fairley has been the country's most dominant defensive tackle so far in 2010 and is worthy of a first-round selection.
2. There has been a great deal of speculation as to the NFL aspirations of underclass quarterbacks Andrew Luck, Ryan Mallett, Blaine Gabbert and Nick Foles, but few have mentioned Michigan State's Kirk Cousins as a potential early entry into the 2011 draft. Cousins' strong performance on the road against Northwestern is only the latest example of a junior quarterback whose poise and recognition of defenses is starting to catch up with obvious physical tools.
Cousins completed 29 of 43 passes against the Wildcats for 331 yards, three touchdowns and zero interceptions. He has completed 66 percent of his passes for 1,948 yards and 14 touchdowns to just four interceptions while operating out of a pro-style offense for 8-0 Michigan State.
Cousins scans the field calmly and completed passes to all levels of the field against Northwestern. He showed touch and the zip to rifle the deep out from the opposite hash. Perhaps most impressively, he showed good poise in leading the Spartans to their comeback victory after falling behind 17-0 midway through the second quarter.
3. Oklahoma wide receiver Ryan Broyles suffered an ankle injury in the first quarter Saturday night against Missouri. With his speed, agility and sticky hands unavailable, the Sooners' coaching staff shifted the focus to their next best receiving threat -- running back DeMarco Murray. Rather than feature their potential All-American running back on screens or short dump-off passes, the Sooners simply split Murray out wide.
The "experiment" only lasted one drive, as Broyles returned to the field in the second quarter. Murray caught three passes for 28 yards in his first drive as a receiver, running a variety of routes and catching the ball cleanly. He caught a 4-yard touchdown pass in the second quarter and finished tied with Broyles for the team lead with eight receptions (for 48 yards).
Though ABC's commentators seemed surprised by Murray's move out wide, the reality is that several NFL teams are looking at Murray as a Reggie Bush-like multipurpose threat. Some teams even view him as a superior prospect at wide receiver.
This isn't to say that Murray can't play running back in the NFL. Obviously, the majority of his experience has come at tailback and he has shown the quick feet, vision and toughness to be quite successful in the pro game. Some scouts do have concerns about his upright running style and relatively lean build. A slashing runner, he doesn't always play with the physicality scouts would prefer.
Murray's build and athleticism make him an intriguing receiver prospect. Due to his quick feet, Murray showed natural ability as a route-runner and is as reliable a "hands" receiver as I've seen this year. Considering this year's weak class of senior wide receivers, it is not out of the realm of possibility that the player who could prove to be the best in the class is currently Oklahoma's star running back.
4. One of the more highly touted prospects from the aforementioned senior wide receiver class, Nebraska's Niles Paul, enjoyed a strong bounce-back game against Oklahoma State on Saturday after a disappointing performance in the Cornhuskers' loss to Texas.
Paul dropped two potential touchdowns in the 20-13 loss to Texas, but quickly proved his worth against the Cowboys, returning a kickoff 100 yards for a touchdown and catching nine passes for a career-high 131 yards. Scouts know full well that having a bad game here or there is a reality for every player. They often look to see how player perform after disappointing performances to get an accurate gauge of their maturity, mental and emotional toughness and ability to handle the step up in competition they'll face in the NFL.
One strong game won't erase the memories of Paul's lackluster performance against the Longhorns. It does, however, show Paul's competitive fire. Paired with his rare combination of size (6-1, 220) and 4.45 speed, that will have the scouts' attention.
5. LSU entered the weekend showdown with Auburn ranked first in the SEC in run defense. Even in surrendering an Auburn-record 440 rushing yards and struggling offensively, LSU remained competitive -- largely because of some spectacular punting by senior Derek Helton.
Specialists rarely get noticed by NFL scouts on the road unless they make a critical mistake. In this game, Helton's ability to pin Auburn deep and punt the Tigers out of trouble on multiple occasions was certain to catch the attention of any NFL personnel scouting the game.
Helton was particularly impressive in the third quarter, dropping two punts inside the 2-yard line and booming another 56 yards. Barring a total collapse down the stretch, Helton will at least be offered a tryout and could very well end up as one of the few punters drafted based largely on the impression he made last week.
Rob Rang is a Senior Draft Analyst for NFLDraftScout.com, distributed by The Sports Xchange. Follow him on Twitter @RobRang.