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CBSSports.com Senior Writer

Speaking Fairley, watch film, question skeptics


Nick Fairley probably wishes the NFL Draft had taken place in early January this year.

He might have been the first player taken if that were the case.

In the three months since, the Auburn defensive tackle has taken a reputation beating that might be second only to Charlie Sheen. He has gone from being a potential top pick to likely almost falling out of the top 10, which could mean a potential loss of millions, not to mention cache.

Amazingly, it has happened and he hasn't played a down since.

So what did it?

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Fairley is just the latest victim of the paralysis-by-analysis syndrome, an evaluation sickness that takes place in the months leading up to the draft. It's a time where coaches and personnel people who come late to the evaluation process spend hours finding what's wrong with a player instead of what's right.

Here are some of the issues they have with Fairley:

 Attitude problems, or at the very least that perception. More and more scouts and coaches I talk to say he has some problems that are a concern. "You have to wonder if he's worth it," one general manager said. "The stuff you hear about him, that he could be a problem, is a concern. He's a good player, but that stuff brings him down." But what are they? Nobody really says. Is it his reputation for being dirty? He hasn't been arrested. And word is he was a good teammate.

 Small upper body. "He has an upper body like you or me," another general manager said. When you're a defensive tackle, that's not good. He does have a leaner build than most inside players in the NFL, but he can grow into his frame.

 One-year wonder. He starred for just one season at Auburn, which is always a red flag for personnel people. But the reality is he went to junior college for two years before going to Auburn. He then started two games as a sophomore and starred as a junior. Isn't that good enough in the tough Southeastern Conference?

It appears that Fairley has fallen behind Alabama's Marcel Dareus in the defensive-tackle rankings. Some scouts consider Dareus the top defensive tackle in this draft, while Fairley is falling behind.

Dareus, they say, is the cleaner of the two players -- which means less risk.

Maybe so, but the tape I watched of Fairley the past couple of days shows an explosive player with amazing in-line quickness for a player who weighs 297 pounds.

At 6-feet-4 and 297 pounds, Fairley is a little lean by NFL standards for an inside player. But once he gets into a top-notch NFL weight room, the upper body will develop. I can see him as a 315-pound force in a year.

It's that quickness that you can't teach. It's basketball-like, which is interesting since he was a basketball player in high school, and Auburn players raved about his skills.

He is so fast out of his stance at the snap of the ball. There was one play in Auburn's game with LSU last year where the center actually complained to the official that Fairley was offside because of his quick get-off. He split a double by the center and left guard on that play and recorded a sack. He was credited with 2½ in the game, but actually should have been given three, as he spent the afternoon in the LSU backfield.

It was criminal what he did to LSU left guard Josh Dworaczyk, who has started the past two seasons for the Tigers. Fairley made that kid look like he shouldn't be on the field. And when he flopped to the other side, he whipped right guard T-Bob Hebert as well.

On one pass play, Fairley was in a one-on-one battle with Dworaczyk and used his left arm for an up-and-under move to shed him and sack the quarterback. It was the quickness that got him off the ball, but it was the power that led to the sack. He got Dworaczyk for another sack where he just blew past him in man blocking.

Fan Poll

Who should Carolina take with the first pick of the draft?

Nick Fairley
Marcell Dareus
Patrick Peterson
Cam Newton
Blaine Gabbert
AJ Green

Total Votes: 13,959

Hebert didn't do much better. He was whipped badly on several plays, including one running play where Fairley got into Hebert's body, shed him with his strength, threw him aside, and then dropped the runner for a four-yard loss.

"You see him on tape and you see a lot of explosive plays," said one NFC defensive coordinator. "I like him. I like him a lot. But I like Dareus a little better."

Fairley played the same dominant way much of the season for Auburn in 2010. He was tough to handle one-on-one, no matter who was against him.

The thing that showed up more than anything was his quickness. It reminds me of Warren Sapp, although he's taller than Sapp. When Sapp played, he was a handful because he was so fast off the ball. Fairley can do the same.

One other positive I noticed watching the Fairley tape was he doesn't quit when the play goes away from him. Some big-time interior linemen quit when the play goes away from them. I saw Fairley chasing down plays several times on the tape, even late in games.

That isn't to say there aren't negatives. At times, Fairley can play too high. When he does, he gets blocked. But a good NFL defensive line coach, coupled with more experience, will cure that.

Another problem is he dances out of the hole to make a play. He is so quick that in college he could beat his man, jump around him and then get back inside to make the play. That won't happen in the NFL. If he jumps out of his spot to try and make a play, that's called a lack of gap discipline. That often leads to big runs.

You also can't jump around a blocker much and get back and make a play. NFL backs are too good for that.

Then there's the on-field attitude. He plays with a mean streak. That led to a "dirty" reputation. He did knock three quarterbacks out of games briefly last season, one leading to a 15-yard penalty, but that isn't really a major issue for NFL teams.

"You can coach that out of him," said the NFC defensive coordinator.

There was a play in the LSU game where Hebert tried to chop block Fairley on a run that went away from him. Fairley didn't take too kindly to that and got up and shoved Hebert in the back. Verdict: He was within his rights. The chop wasn't necessary, and, oh by the way, could have cost him millions.

So add all this up and the summary on Fairley is that he is a talented player with some overblown issues that are a concern to some NFL teams. He has been compared to Albert Haynesworth, the talented yet troubled, Washington Redskins defensive tackle, which I say is unfair.

Haynesworth has a reputation for being a dirty player, and had a high-profile incident a few years back where he stomped on the head of Cowboys center Andre Gurode. But Fairley seems eager to play the game, while Haynesworth clearly is not.

"Somebody is going to either get a star or a kid you have to worry about constantly," said the general manager. "You have to decide if he's worth the risk."

The tape said he is. Only time will tell.

Pete Prisco has covered the NFL for three decades, including working as a beat reporter in Jacksonville for the Jaguars. He hosted his own radio show for seven years, and is the self-anointed star of CBS Sports' show, Eye on Football. When he's not watching game tape, you can find Pete on Twitter or dreaming of an Arizona State national title in football.

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