When Stanford quarterback Andrew Luck decided to go back to Stanford instead of entering this year's draft, it opened up the race to be the top player.
Not in my mind.
As much as I'd love to put a quarterback in the top spot, my choice is Auburn defensive tackle Nick Fairley. He is No. 1 on my list of the top-32 prospects heading into this week's NFL Scouting Combine.
|Nick Fairley could help the Carolina Panthers, who have a problem at defensive tackle. (Getty Images)|
Yes, Fairley really has only done it for one season, but that one big season was sensational in 2010 at Auburn. Sapp should like what he sees in Fairley: A bigger, stronger version of himself.
The Carolina Panthers, who pick first in the April draft, have a big problem inside at defensive tackle. Fairley would alleviate those concerns. There are some issues with Fairley relating to on-field conduct, late hits and such, but that can be coached out of him. Fines help, too.
Fairley is the top player on my list of 32 ... for now.
1. Nick Fairley, DT, Auburn: Yes, he comes with some baggage, but it's up to the coach to make sure he gets the best out of him and not the worst. Isn't that why coaches get big money?
2. Patrick Peterson, CB, LSU: He's a good cover man who also excels as a kick returner. He has the size-speed you want from a corner. The value of this position makes him even more of a hot commodity.
3. A.J. Green, WR Georgia: Watching the playoffs, it was quite evident that teams with speed outside have a big edge. This kid is big and can run. He plays really fast -- even if his 40 times aren't burning.
4. Da'Quan Bowers, DE, Clemson: He has the size to be a Julius Peppers-type defensive end. But there are some scouts who wonder if he's as good as the numbers would indicate. The size and speed are there, but he is coming off meniscus surgery.
5. Prince Amukamara, CB, Nebraska: When you watched the Huskers play, he was shutting down the receiver opposite of him. He excels in man and press coverage, which he did a lot of at Nebraska. At 6-1, 200 pounds, he has good size as well.
6. Von Miller, OLB, Texas A&M: He is a perfect 3-4 outside rusher. He owned the Senior Bowl week with his play. He is explosive, yet strong enough to hold up at the point.
7. Robert Quinn, DE, North Carolina: He might be the best 4-3 rusher in this draft. He missed last season after being suspended for accepting improper benefits from an agent, so his evaluation is based on an impressive 2009 season. Came back from a brain tumor he had in high school to play football again, even though he was told he wouldn't play again.
8. Blaine Gabbert, QB, Missouri: He has risen up a lot of boards after Andrew Luck decided to go back to school. Some will say it's a rush to fill a void, but I think he has all the tools. The one knock is that he played in a spread offense his entire career. How does he handle snaps from center?
9. Marcel Dareus, DE, Alabama: He isn't a speed end and he isn't big if he goes inside to tackle. But he is a good football player, who knows how to get to the quarterback. Dareus is an ideal 3-4 end.
10. Cam Newton, QB, Auburn: I usually don't like run-around quarterbacks, but this kid is intriguing to me. He's big, strong, fast and has a good arm. He's much more advanced than when Tim Tebow was coming out of Florida. He has to show he can handle reading defenses from a more-conventional style of offense.
11. Jimmy Smith, CB, Colorado: At 6-2, 210 pounds, he is a big corner who can run. He played a lot of man coverage at Colorado and always seemed up to it. He's also a willing tackler in the run game.
12. Ryan Kerrigan, DE, Purdue: He has an explosive first step and plays with a relentless style. The knock on him is that he's only 255 pounds and scouts wonder if that's as big as he can get.
13. Mike Pouncey, G-C, Florida: His brother was outstanding as a rookie center for the Steelers, and he isn't far behind. Pouncey did have problems with shotgun snaps at Florida, but he's smart like his brother and can be taught how to do it. I think his value will be at center, but he could be an All-Pro guard as well. Might not go this high in the draft, but he's a good player.
14. Aldon Smith, DE-OLB, Missouri: At 260 pounds, he can be either a down end or an outside linebacker in a 3-4. He played end at Missouri, which is where I think he would fit best.
15. Nate Solder, T, Colorado: This former tight end has a huge frame at 6-8, 315 pounds. He can add another 20 pounds easy. He has great feet for a left tackle. He did struggle some in the Senior Bowl game, but had a great week of practices.
16. Julio Jones, WR, Alabama: He's a long-strider who can be a deep threat on the next level. But he wasn't as good at that at Alabama as expected. Look at his yards per catch. At 6-4, 211 pounds, he has great size for a receiver.
17. J.J. Watt, DE, Wisconsin: This former tight end emerged as an elite pass rusher for the Badgers this season. Watt has good size at 6-5 1/2 and 280 pounds. He isn't a pure speed rusher, but he knows all the tricks to get to the passer. Watt also holds up against the run.
18. Akeem Ayers, OLB, UCLA: At 6-3, 245 pounds, he is built like a strong-side linebacker, but runs like a weak-side linebacker. He had three touchdowns in 2009, which shows his athletic ability.
19. Mark Ingram, RB, Alabama: Think Emmitt Smith. He won't wow you with his numbers, but he knows how to make people miss. Tacklers never get clear shots on him, which is why he piles up the yards.
20. Cameron Heyward, DE, Ohio State: He was a force in the Sugar Bowl, which shows the ability he has as a rush end. He isn't a pure speed player, but he knows how to get to the quarterback. He's the son of former NFL running back Craig "Ironhead" Heyward.
21. Anthony Castonzo, T-G, Boston College: Has been a starter since he was a freshman. He has played tackle in college, but some scouts think he might have to move inside to guard. He isn't a mauler, but he's tough enough. Might need to add some weight.
22. Cameron Jordan, DE, California: He's the son of former NFL tight end Steve Jordan. Isn't a pure speed rusher, but knows how to get to the quarterback. Holds up well in the run game. Did have a DUI arrest at Cal.
23. Corey Liuget, DT, Illinois: At 6-3, 300 pounds, he's a power player who can hold the point against the run. He also has good quickness for his size. He's rising on a lot of boards.
24. Tyron Smith, T, USC: Was a right tackle at USC, but he's undersized for the position in the NFL at 300 pounds. Will move to left tackle. He is very athletic, which will help with the speed rushers on the next level. Just turned 20.
25. Phil Taylor DT, Baylor: At 6-3 335 pounds, he is a load. Can play on the nose or in a 4-3. Started his career at Penn State, but was dismissed from the team for an off-field incident and academic troubles.
26. Derek Sherrod, T, Mississippi State: He played right tackle early in his career, but is more of a left tackle, the spot he played the past three seasons. He has good size and feet. The knock on him is that he isn't as physical in the run game.
27. Torrey Smith, WR, Maryland: He has good size (6-0, 202) and has top-end speed. Smith is also a good return man. The knock on him is that he sometimes catches with his body, rather than his hands.
28. Justin Houston, OLB, Georgia: At 6-3, 255 pounds, he has the size to be an outside linebacker in a 3-4 scheme. He has the speed off the edge teams want from those outside rushers.
29. Gabe Carimi, T, Wisconsin: At 6-7, 315 pounds, he is a mauler. Plays with a mean streak. Holds his blocks for a long time. Played left tackle in college, but there's a chance he might be better suited to the right side.
30. Adrian Clayborn, DE, Iowa: Came into the season with a chance to be a top-10 pick, but didn't play as well as he did in 2009. He's a power edge player who doesn't have great quickness. Will beat tackles with toughness and hands.
31. Jake Locker, QB, Washington: He might have been the top player picked had he come out last season, but he didn't play as well for a variety of reasons. He lacks pocket presence and he doesn't have great touch. But he can move around and he has a big arm. Will need time to develop.
32. Muhammad Wilkerson, DT, Temple: He's a fast riser in this draft. At 6-5, 300 pounds, he will be a perfect 3-4 end. In a 4-3, he has to play tackle. Has good quickness for a man his size.
Just missed: Drake Nevis, DT, LSU, Ryan Mallet, QB, Arkansas, Colin Kapernick,, QB, Nevada-Reno, Brandon Harris, CB, Miami, Andy Dalton, QB, TCU, Mikel LeShoure, RB, Illinois, Kyle Rudolph, TE, Notre Dame, Danny Watkins, G, Baylor and Stephen Paea, DT, Oregon State.