(A series looking at the top players at various positions leading up to the 2011 NFL Draft, set for April 28-30.)
Throughout most of the 2010 college football season, he was being called the next Warren Sapp, and as the 2011 NFL Draft approaches, it seems as though Auburn's Nick Fairley might indeed turn out to be the next Warren Sapp, but not in a good way.
Fairley (6-foot-4, 291 pounds) was the most dominant player in college football for the team that ended up ranked No. 1 in the nation last season. In 14 games against top competition, Fairley recorded 24 tackles for loss, 11.5 sacks and an interception. That's where the comparisons to Sapp began, in a good way.
But then questions about Fairley began to surface, and they have yet to be answered.
NFL Network analyst Mike Mayock has said he doesn't even believe Fairley is this year's best defensive tackle. On a recent conference call with the media, ESPN director of college scouting Todd McShay, who had said he was "blown away" by Fairley's performance at Auburn's Pro Day on March 8, updated his opinion with: "The more you watch Fairley on tape, the more worried you get he'll be a bust. He has a chance to be a bust."
This is where the comparisons to Sapp in a bad way might come true. After the 1994 college football season, Warren Sapp was such a dominant player that it was assumed he would be a top-five pick, maybe even No. 1 overall, but on draft day he started to fall, and it was all televised by ESPN. When the drop ended, Sapp not only wasn't the first overall pick but he turned out to be the fourth defensive lineman picked – after Kevin Carter, Mike Mamula and Derrick Alexander -- when Tampa Bay used its 12th overall selection on him.
For teams scared off by some of the pre-draft negatives swirling around Fairley, there are a number of other first-round caliber talents from which to choose.
Included among the players with that level of ability are Alabama's Marcell Dareus, Illinois' Corey Liuget, Baylor's Phil Taylor and Oregon State's Stephen Paea.
Dareus (6-3, 319) burst onto the scene during the 2009 national championship game when he knocked Texas quarterback Colt McCoy out early and then helped cement Alabama's win by returning an interception for a touchdown. He's considered a safer choice than Fairley.
Liuget (6-2, 298) played only three seasons of college football and was a full-time starter only in 2010, but he was voted a team captain that year and finished with 12.5 tackles for loss and 4.5 sacks while also batting down three passes at the line of scrimmage.
Taylor (6-3, 335) began his college career at Penn State, but he was kicked out of school for his role in a fight at a fraternity party. That's how he came to attend Baylor. In 2010, Taylor finished with 62 tackles, including seven for loss, as a second-team All-Big 12 pick. He performed well at the Senior Bowl and is probably the best option for a team in search of a nose tackle for its 3-4. But he is going to have to answer some questions about his what happened at Penn State.
Paea (6-1, 303) made himself a household name by breaking the Combine record for repetitions in the bench press. Paea did 49 reps with 225 pounds, and he is said to combine that brute strength with explosiveness and the natural leverage that comes from being shorter than most of the offensive linemen he's going to face. A team captain, Paea set a school record with nine forced fumbles, and in 2010 he was named Pac-10 Conference MVP.
THE 2010 NFL DRAFT, DT STATISTICS
Number drafted: 24
Picks by round: 5 in the first, 6 in the second, 3 in the third, 2 in the fourth, 2 in the fifth, 0 in the sixth, 6 in the seventh
Highest pick: Ndamukong Suh, Nebraska, Round 1, 2nd overall, by Detroit
Biggest impact: Ndamukong Suh, Nebraska, Round 1, 2nd overall, posted 9.5 sacks and was named NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year while making 16 starts for the Lions.