Oregon's Chip Kelly said Monday night that Fairley proved he's the best defensive lineman in the country.
Georgia coach Mark Richt said Fairley is the best defensive tackle he's seen since Warren Sapp.
Former Auburn coach Tommy Tuberville first offered Fairley a scholarship after watching him sprint, slide and glide on a basketball court, outrunning 5-foot-11 point guards and outmuscling 6-11 centers. Other schools recruited him, and offered scholarships, to play tight end.
He has packaged that unique athletic ability, size and a hint of a nasty on-field demeanor to leave the Tigers as one of the premier players in college football.
A defensive tackle was last selected first overall in 1994, two years after the Colts drafted Steve Emtman at No. 1. The footing has been treacherous for teams investing big dollars and top picks in defensive linemen, and the road to Bustville is littered with the likes of Jimmy Kennedy, Johnathan Sullivan, Dewayne Robertson, Ryan Sims, Marcus Tubbs, Wendell Bryant, Gerard Warren, Travis Johnson, John McCargo, Justin Harrell and Kentwan Balmer, to name a dozen first-round picks.
DT Nick Fairley
Kevin C. Cox/Getty
NFLDraftScout.com's top-rated defensive tackle, he likely rates ahead of Clemson defensive end Da'Quan Bowers for several teams in need of defensive line help because Fairley has superior explosiveness and elite flexibility, a rare combination for a 300-pound defensive tackle. He can be projected as a double-digit sack guy on the interior line, and because of it teams should be more than willing to make him the foundation of their defense.
"He's going to make a bunch of money one day," said Ted Roof, Auburn's defensive coordinator and one of the coaches Fairley credits with teaching him how to 'flip the switch.'
Fairley's light, quick feet are rare for the position and he has the hand punch and speed to shed blocks on the move. He measures up favorably against the college prospect incarnation of Sapp, a first-round pick (12th overall) in 1995.
Fairley is three inches taller at 6 feet, 5 inches and is the ideal fit in the penetrating scheme Sapp helped popularize as a three-technique tackle. He beats blockers off the line with ease and has a bull rush to steamroll interior linemen at the college level.
"He has the athletic ability to go as far as he wants to go," senior Zach Clayton said of Fairley.
Most teams won't compare him to Ndamukong Suh, last year's No. 2 overall pick, but there are similarities, particularly in the sense that Fairley had long stretches of games where he was virtually unblockable no matter if two or three blockers were assigned to him.
"He plays hard," said Roof. "He plays physical."
For scouts and NFL teams the concerns aren't many, but they are considerable. Both Chizik and Auburn defensive line coach Tracy Rocker, who also happens to be Auburn's last Lombardi Trophy winner (1988), voiced during his breakout season that their biggest challenge to Fairley wasn't whether he could make dominant plays and eliminate blockers. It was motivating him to do it on each and every down.
A slew of penalties for what the team called "over-aggressiveness" might mar his standout season for some. The unforgettable play was a spearing blindside tackle of Georgia quarterback Aaron Murray in November for which the SEC considered a suspension. Arkansas' Ryan Mallett, like Murray, was knocked out of a game by Fairley, who also dumped LSU's Jordan Jefferson on his ear twice.
His questionable hits drew immense criticism and Oregon quarterback Darron Thomas called Fairley "dirty" prior to the 2010 BCS title game.
"I go out there and give it 110 (percent)," Fairley said. "I will try to go out there and make plays for my team. If that's me playing dirty, if that's what they want to call it, then that's what it is."
That aside, there were few true letdowns on Fairley's 2010 resume tape and, truth be told, he was unstoppable for the final two games of the 2009 season, including the Outback Bowl win over Northwestern in which he sprinted sideline to sideline to contain Wildcats' quarterback Mike Kafka.
He failed to qualify academically as a high school senior and attended Copiah-Lincoln (Miss.) Community College in 2007 (redshirt) and '08. He played just two seasons at Auburn and through the NFL evaluator lens, there's some concern that he's a one-year wonder who might regress, develop bad habits or -- as his coaches feared -- coast when he starts depositing paychecks with six zeroes.
Rocker, for one, will tell NFL teams they needn't worry about Fairley's attention to detail, or that he'll coast or disappear.
At the end of the 2009 season, Rocker said Fairley flipped the switch, studying on his own and learning the assignments of his teammates to the point that he started the '10 season in such a comfort zone that he could make calls and adjustments on the fly.
Impressive statistics -- 24 tackles for loss, 11.5 sacks as a junior -- and many postseason honors including SEC Defensive Player of the Year from the Associated Press gain emphasis when you learn that '10 was only the fourth season, including junior college, Fairley has been a defensive lineman.
The one-year wonder thesis might belong in the circular file.
"We'd seen glimpses, seen flashes," Roof said, adding that there's "much more from him" to come.
It's up to NFL teams, starting with the Panthers, to project how far Fairley could take them.
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