Dareus or Fairley: Safer pick or special 1?

by | CBSSports.com Senior Writer

If the Carolina Panthers are considering drafting Auburn quarterback Cam Newton with the first pick I have a suggestion: Don't. There are better, less risky options out there.

Like a defensive tackle.

Marcell Dareus and Nick Fairley aren't the best two players in the draft -- LSU cornerback Patrick Peterson is -- but they're close. In fact, they're so close I wouldn't be surprised if both were taken with the first three choices, which is what happened last year when defensive tackles Ndamukong Suh and Gerald McCoy went 2-3.

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The question, of course, is which is better, and I'll pass that one along to Fairley.

"He's a great player, I'm a great player," he said. "So there is no comparison."

Actually, there is, but it depends on what defense you're in. Dareus is the bigger of the two, someone who can play anywhere on the defensive line -- all the way from outside the tight end on in. Fairley is smaller, quicker and more explosive, and you can play him almost anywhere, too, but not at nose tackle.

The choice is yours. Both are effective, and both have their supporters. But I hear more about Dareus than I do about Fairley for one reason: "I think there's a little more of a risk/reward factor with Fairley than there is with Dareus," said one scout.

Translation: Dareus is the safer pick, and take the hint, Carolina.

"When you pick that high," said Vinny Cerrato, Washington's former executive vice president of football operations, "you like less risk."

Then the Panthers should like Dareus.

At 6-feet-3, 319 pounds, he has the size you want at the position, and he has rare speed for that size -- running a 4.94 40 at the combine. He's powerful. He's quick off the snap. He's strong and nasty, with surprising lateral agility. He can play up and down the line, be it over tackle, guard or center, and he plays hard -- which means it doesn't matter what you're in, a 3-4 or a 4-3, he'll make you better.

Plus, the guy's consistent. He had 33 tackles and six sacks in 2009 and 33 tackles and five sacks in 2010.

"You could make the argument," said one scout, "that he was Alabama's best player in 2009."

You might try the same thing with Fairley at Auburn in 2010, but I wouldn't recommend it. Newton was there, and it's hard to argue that a teammate is better than the Heisman Trophy winner. It's not, however, hard to argue that someone might project as a better pro, and I've spoken to too many scouts, GMs and coaches not to believe that Newton is an acquired taste. You either like him or you don't. There's no gray involved, and there are plenty of people out there who are down on him.

That's why Carolina should be careful with that first pick. The Panthers last year used their first draft choice on a quarterback, and, yeah, OK, so Jimmy Clausen stunk. So did the rest of the team. I don't know if he makes it or not, but I do know that if you take Newton you've written off Clausen. I also know that some of the same questions that revolved around Clausen as a draft prospect -- particularly off the field -- are the same questions people ask of Newton.

"There are just too many red flags," said one scout.

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

Then that should make Carolina's job easier. Make the safe pick. And the safe pick is a defensive tackle, particularly when you play in the same division with Michael Turner. I could make a case for either Dareus or Fairley, and I could certainly make a case for LSU's Peterson for one basic reason: Because he's the best player in the draft. As one GM said, "What's the worst that can happen with him? That he makes the Pro Bowl five years instead of nine?" Yeah, I'll take that.

But I'll take Fairley or Dareus, too, especially when Carolina ranked 23rd vs. the run and hasn't had a legitimate run stuffer since Kris Jenkins or Maake Kemoeatu. In Fairley, they find someone who doesn't have ideal size for the position (6-4, 291) but who can play in a 3-4 or 4-3 and is an explosive, up-the-field pass rusher. Plus, he's hot, hot, hot, coming off a marvelous season where he had 60 tackles, 11.5 sacks and a school-record 24 tackles for losses and where he was named the country's best lineman.

So the arrow is pointing up ... as in way up. But that's one of the knocks on the guy: That he's a one-year wonder. A junior-college transfer, Fairley started the last two games of 2009 before settling in at defensive tackle, and some scouts wonder how or if he repeats his 2010 success at the next level.

"Of course," said Cerrato, "it could mean that every year he's going to get better, that his ceiling is higher. What you're getting with Dareus is consistency. What you're getting with Fairley is a quick, athletic up-the-field power type of guy, and where he has one year of success, Dareus has two. If I want to stop the run, I'm probably taking Dareus. If I want someone who can get up the field, I'm going to take a look at Fairley."

Cerrato is right. If you pass on Fairley you could be passing on someone extraordinary, someone who has a chance to be, as one scout put it, "special." But there's a risk, and the risk is that the guy you're getting is emotional and immature. By his own admission, Fairley will take stupid penalties, and maybe that changes when he hits the pros, I don't know. What I do know is that it's not an issue with Dareus, and I think back to what Cerrato said -- when you draft where Carolina is, which is at the top of the board, you don't take chances. You make the safe choice.

Well, then, case closed. The safe choice at defensive tackle is Marcell Dareus.


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