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INDIANAPOLIS — Is Nick Fairley the second coming of Ndamukong Suh, or the next Albert Haynesworth?
The answer could determine whether he is the first defensive tackle drafted this year or is sent plummeting down draft boards leading up to April.
Fairley's chance to prove himself comes this week at the NFL Scouting Combine, when he will get to display the talents that helped him lead Auburn to an undefeated season and a national title in 2010. Having drawn comparisons to both ofthe aforementioned players, it's here that he will have the opportunity to show teams that he is a lot more like the former than the latter, both on and off the field.
When it comes to his performance on the gridiron this past season, it's no surprise that Fairley is being linked to Suh. Following a simply dominant senior campaign at Nebraska, Suh was taken No. 2 overall by the Lions last year. The D-tackle proceeded to start all 16 games, notch 10 sacks and rack up 66 tackles on his way to a Pro Bowl berth. And his attitude and demeanor away from the game couldn't be classier.
"Ndamukong Suh is a great player, defensive rookie of the year," Fairley said when addressing the media Sunday. "It helped (the value of DTs) out a lot, him coming out last year with the impact that he had on the college game, and now that folks are getting to see it."
Fairley, meanwhile, was almost equally as stellar in '10, finishing with 11½ sacks, 60 tackles and 24 tackles for loss. After spending his first two college seasons at Copiah-Lincoln Community College in Mississippi and barely playing during his initial season at Auburn, Fairley's explosion came as a shock to most. The season ended with him winning the Lombardi Award and being named defensive player of the game in the Tigers' BCS national championship game victory over Oregon, a contest in which he had a sack, three tackles for loss and a forced fumble.
His SEC competition couldn't help but take notice of his ability to control a game.
"He was just a really good player," said Georgia's Clint Boling, PFW's No. 3-ranked offensive guard, whose Bulldogs lost to Auburn. "He played hard, he did a good job of getting after the quarterback."
When it comes to skill sets, Fairley and Suh are quite similar. Both of them have tremendous speed and quickness for their position — Fairley said he actually lost weight leading up to the Combine to become even faster, weighing in at 291 pounds. Both are lightning-fast off the snap to penetrate the line. Both are gifted pass rushers. And both can change a game with their ability to harass opposing quarterbacks.
As someone who took on Fairley every day in practice, OT Lee Ziemba would know.
"He's quick off the ball. He's very explosive. He's a powerful football player and he gets off blocks," Ziemba said of his Auburn teammate.
Players like Fairley are a rare breed — which is exactly why they are coveted by NFL franchises. It's not every year that guys come around who can so thoroughly control the trenches, swallowing up opposing ballcarriers and pushing linemen out of the way when it's time to attack the QB. If not for QB Sam Bradford's late surge, Suh would have been the top overall pick in last season's draft. Now Fairley has the chance to be a top-five selection or better if he emulates his predecessor in the months ahead.
But that's one of two ways Fairley could go. The other one wouldn't be as pleasant for him — or his draft stock.
Like both Fairley and Suh, Haynesworth also wreaked havoc during his college days at Tennessee, earning him a spot in the first half of Round One in 2002. It took him a bit longer to get going, but the behemoth tackle eventually rounded into form, making the Pro Bowl in '07 and '08. However, his career has taken a dramatic fall since then.
After cashing in on a $100 million contract with the Redskins, Haynesworth has been virtually invisible, not showing up to camp in shape, giving little effort in games and publicly calling out coaches. It led to him barely playing in 2010 and the team suspending him for the final month of the season. And, of course, there are the myriad arrests that Haynesworth has accumulated for his questionable conduct off the field.
Despite accusations to the contrary, Fairley stated that giving consistent effort isn't a problem for him.
"I don't think I take plays off, I think I play the game the way it should be played," he said. "I play with a high motor. I hit a light switch when I hit the field and don't turn it off until I leave the field."
Character issues have followed Fairley throughout his career, as well, but perhaps the biggest reason his name has been mentioned in the same sentence as Haynesworth's is because of their propensity for playing dirty football. Haynesworth's most infamous incident is etched in the minds of most football fans: In '06, he stomped on the head of Cowboys C Andre Gurode — sans helmet — when a play was over, causing a gash that required 30 stitches to close.
Late hits were a regular part of Fairley's game last season, as he was assessed multiple unsportsmanlike-conduct penalties. But Auburn head coach Gene Chizik called the notion that Fairley was a dirty player "absurd," and at least one NFL general manager agrees.
"No, not at all," said Browns GM Tom Heckert of Fairley being dirty. "I think he's a tough player, he really is. I guess there's a fine line. … I think it's more toughness than being a dirty player."
Now it will be up to the 23-year-old to prove that to folks around the league. For Fairley, the most important part of his stay in Indianapolis will be his ability to handle questions about his character during interviews with teams. Even more so than what he does on the field at Lucas Oil Stadium, PFW's No. 2 defensive tackle will have to find the right words this week to vault himself ahead of the No. 1 DT, Alabama's Marcell Dareus, in the minds of many. He'll also have to convince them that he wasn't a one-year wonder.
"I would probably go (with) Marcell right now because I think Nick, even though he had a great first year, there's a lot of gaps in his college career," said NFL Network's Michael Lombardi, a former NFL executive. "Bill Walsh had a great saying: Don't take the one-year player and look forward, take the one-year player and look back. I've always followed that rule when a guy has one great year."
Fairley's play last year was certainly good enough for him to not only be the first defensive tackle selected, but possibly even the first player taken overall. If he can persuade NFL teams that he's much more like Suh than Haynesworth from a mental standpoint, that could come to fruition in April.