Auburn junior defensive tackle Nick Fairley is expected to declare for the 2011 NFL Draft on Friday. Let's put it this way: it would be a monumental upset if Fairley, the soon-to-be 23-year-old Lombardi Trophy winner that saw his star soar to new heights in a strong BCS National Championship game showing, returned to college.
(UPDATE: Fairley declared for the NFL Draft.)
Fairley just wrapped up a terrific season at Auburn. Headlining a Tigers defense that was not great during the regular season, but which stepped up in a big way in their championship win over an explosive Oregon team, Fairley accumulated 56 tackles, 24 tackles for loss and 11.5 sacks. He was especially productive in big games, picking up two sacks in an early-season win over Mississippi State, three more in a key home win over LSU, and a further two in Auburn's come-from-behind win over Alabama. In the championship game, Fairley recorded five tackles, three for loss, a sack and a forced fumble.
There isn't a single 2011 NFL Draft prospect whose stock is hotter than Fairley's right now. It can be argued fairly (see what we did there?) easily that Fairley was the most dominant defender in college football in 2010. The 6'5", 298-pound tackle currently holds the coveted top spot on Mel Kiper's Big Board, and is considered a candidate to be drafted No. 1 overall by the Carolina Panthers.
"This guy's a hell of a player, and every time I watch him, I like him a little bit more than I did the time before," Gabriel said in a recent podcast. "Very aggressive, physical player; very powerful. He's got nasty in his play, I like that in a defensive lineman. He's athletic, he can play anywhere in the front, in any scheme. So you have a lot of flexibility with him. It's not gonna be a 4-3 team or a 3-4 team, anybody can pick this guy. Interesting player, and a very, very good player. I'll tell you, when the game means something, he plays real good."
Still, it's not often that defensive tackles are considered worthy of being the first player off the board in a given NFL Draft. It's only happened once since the advent of free agency in the NFL, when Dan Wilkinson was the first overall pick of the Cincinnati Bengals in 1994. Counting Fairley, however, defensive tackles will have received this consideration in three of the last four years - and it's leading to some unwieldy comparisons for Fairley.
Kiper, for example, busted this line out when putting Fairley atop his big board: "Fairley's utterly dominant performance against Oregon was right up there with the recent performance of Ndamukong Suh against Texas in last year's Big 12 title tilt."
That won't be the last time you hear Fairley compared to Suh, who a year ago was widely considered the best defensive line prospect of the past decade, and who was selected No. 2 overall by the Detroit Lions. Those comparisons might be unfair; Suh left Nebraska a more experienced, more well-rounded player with better intangibles. A more apt comparison might be former LSU star Glenn Dorsey, the No. 5 overall pick in the 2008 NFL Draft who struggled to adjust to NFL life in Kansas City, but who has since settled into a comfortable role in the Chiefs' 3-4 defense.
Not everyone is sold on Fairley, either. SB Nation's own Dan Kadar picked apart Fairley's performance against Oregon, saying that his stat line lied, and helped mask flaws in his overall game. Kadar, along with others, wonder openly about Fairley's strength and ability to stack and shed blockers while defending the run. On occasion, Fairley looked uninterested in his outstanding junior campaign, allowing blockers to control him in the run game and taking plays off. Concerns also exist over the fact that Fairley didn't have much of an impact until the 2010 season, and may be something of a one-year wonder. Some of these are concerns that Gabriel echoes, as well.
"He had production last year, but was more of a rotational player and didn't get a lot," Gabriel said. "First of all, he played in the SEC. Every week is a battle. You're playing against top competition. There were a couple of games, the Mississippi game I think it was, early in the year, where he took some plays off."
With Stanford quarterback Andrew Luck returning to school for the 2011 season, there isn't yet a consensus best overall prospect in the 2011 NFL Draft - though there are several excellent contenders. Should Fairley officially enter the fray today, he absolutely merits consideration for Carolina's first pick, even while the comparisons to Suh are a bit over the top. Gabriel, for the record, is sold on Fairley as a future star.
"When he wants to play, you ain't blocking him," Gabriel said. "That guy's a football player."