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CBSSports.com National Columnist

Suh wrong again: Disregard Fairley chatter

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Just realized, the joke's on me. I'm slow, so I didn't get it when the joke started making the rounds a few weeks ago. Football folks were getting serious about the 2011 NFL Draft, but not so serious that they couldn't tell a knee-slapper that started something like this:

A scout, a sportswriter and Auburn defensive tackle Nick Fairley walk into the NFL Combine at Indianapolis ...

Will Nick Fairley (19) be a more productive pro than Marcell Dareus (right)? Their college numbers say yes. (US Presswire)  
Will Nick Fairley (19) be a more productive pro than Marcell Dareus (right)? Their college numbers say yes. (US Presswire)  
That's how it starts. It goes on for a while, so I'll paraphrase it down to the bare essentials: According to scouts and sportswriters, Nick Fairley walked out of the NFL combine as damaged goods. Once projected as the best player in the draft, it had become apparent that Fairley won't be the first player drafted April 28. He won't be the first defensive tackle drafted. Or even the first defensive tackle from the state of Alabama drafted.

That's the joke. Get it?

Hilarious.

The joke's on me, though, because I took it seriously. Swear, I did. When I read this story here on my own website, and that story there from the West Coast, I thought they were being serious! Nick Fairley is soft and stupid and might deserve to drop all the way into the teens? Hahahaha.

Dry humor. Gets me every time.

But this joke, well, I fell for this joke so hard that I got all wet. I read those reports late last week on Fairley and immediately went to the phones. I called Auburn coach Gene Chizik, and we discussed Fairley's draft stock. I'll tell you what he said in a minute, but first, let's get my opinion -- and this fact -- out of the way:

Nick Fairley is the best defensive tackle from the state of Alabama in this draft. He's the best defensive tackle from anywhere in the draft. He's probably, and by probably I mean definitely, the best overall player in this draft. In other words, he's the 2011 version of Ndamukong Suh.

And that's why the joke's on me, because we've been here before. This happened last year to Suh, coming off a senior season at Nebraska in which he'd been college football's most dominant defensive tackle in years, maybe decades, maybe ever. I'm thinking Lee Roy Selmon was as good at Oklahoma as Suh had been at Nebraska in 2009, but Selmon was at Oklahoma in the mid-1970s. That's how long it had been since we'd seen a defensive tackle like Suh.

And at this time last year, scouts and sportswriters were trying to tell us that Suh might not even be the first defensive tackle taken in the 2010 draft! Hahahaha. I fell for it, like I always do, and wrote this story on Suh explaining why it would be indefensible for anyone to pick Oklahoma defensive tackle Gerald McCoy ahead of him.

Of course it didn't happen. After Sam Bradford went first overall, Detroit took Suh, not McCoy, and Suh went on to become 2010 AP Defensive Rookie of the Year. McCoy? He had a nice rookie season. But there was no comparison between him and Suh in the NFL, just as there was no comparison between the two in college.

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So here we are with Nick Fairley and Marcell Dareus, the defensive tackle from Alabama allegedly rated ahead of Fairley on some draft boards, and definitely rated ahead of Fairley in mock drafts -- including both mocks here at CBSSports.com. Chad Reuter and Rob Rang have Fairley going eighth.

Look, Rob Rang and Chad Reuter know more football than me, and it's not close. They've watched more tape in the last week than I've watched in my entire life. Pad level? Hand punch? Lateral this, leverage that? No clue what it means, so I keep it simple:

Last season Fairley had 60 tackles, including 24 tackles for loss and 11.5 sacks. Dareus had 33 tackles, 11 TFLs and five sacks. He was half the player as Fairley, and they played in the same conference.

But now Dareus is better? Look, Alabama fans, this story is not meant to crush Marcell Dareus, just as last year I made pains to not crush Gerald McCoy. McCoy was a fine draft prospect last year and Dareus is a fine prospect this year, but there can only be one top guy, and last year the top DT guy was Suh. And this year it's Fairley.

Hell, Fairley's numbers for 2010 are better than Dareus' numbers for his career. Some are saying Fairley is a bad guy. A "JUCO kid to the core," whatever that means, according to one anonymous scout. It's true Fairley went to junior college. It's also true he developed a reputation for rough (some would say dirty) play. But it's true that Dareus himself cheated, hooking up with an agent while still in college, getting himself suspended for two games. So we have two kids with a history of poor choices. Apples and apples off the field, but on the field? Fairley's the juiciest apple on that tree.

Well, that's what I thought. I called Chizik to ask him what he thought. We didn't talk about Fairley vs. Dareus, or Fairley vs. Suh, or Fairley vs. Anyone. We just talked about Fairley, and his future, and his recent slip -- real or imagined -- on draft boards. As Chizik started talking, I felt stupid. Because it dawned on me that I'd fallen for it again. This was McCoy-over-Suh, Part II.

"As you get closer to draft day there's all kinds of different speculation out there and different strategies between teams," Chizik was saying. "They're jockeying for position to maybe talk somebody out of something. Everybody has a different opinion, but bottom line, whoever gets Nick Fairley is getting a great player."

But what about Fairley's hands, I asked Chizik, pretending I knew what that meant. His weight? His soft body, his JUCO background, his inability to understand complex schemes?

"Getting used to college football was a process for him, and his best days are ahead of him," Chizik said. "But by the time he left here, he understood the game well enough that nobody in this league could block him."

Fairley weighs a tick under 300 pounds and runs the 40-yard dash in 4.8 seconds. That's no joke, so I'll leave it like this: I'll believe in Bigfoot before I believe Nick Fairley won't be the first defensive tackle taken in the 2011 draft. And if I'm wrong? The joke won't be on me. Not anymore. It'll be on whatever NFL team makes that mistake.


Gregg Doyel is a columnist for CBSSports.com. He covered the ACC for the Charlotte Observer, the Marlins for the Miami Herald, and Brooksville (Fla.) Hernando for the Tampa Tribune. He was 4-0 (3 KO's!) as an amateur boxer, and volunteers for the ALS Association. Follow Gregg Doyel on Twitter.
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