This might very well be remembered as the most over-scrutinized NFL draft in history.
It seems that a day isn't complete unless we hear about a prospect's false move (real or imagined) or some troublesome trait (Did I really read that Andy Dalton's red hair might be considered a red flag for the TCU quarterback?) or the sound of some alarm that screams: "Bad risk! Don't touch him!" I can't help but wonder whether this perpetual sense of panic filling the air is going to lead to major regret on the part of some teams when the draft begins next week.
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The sense I have gotten in the last few days is that much of the scrutiny about the Auburn defensive tackle isn't completely justified, and that he's probably going to be drafted lower in the first round than his talent suggests he should.
Some of the concerns about Fairley deal with his character. He has recently taken media hits for blowing off an optional dinner with representatives of the Miami Dolphins. Is that really a legitimate reason to doubt a player's worthiness as a high pick? I don't think so.
Then, of course, there is the ceaseless conversation about him being a "one-year wonder." It's true that Fairley didn't do a whole lot worth noting in 2009. But it's also true that Auburn defensive line coach Tracy Rocker, who made the College Football Hall of Fame as a tackle for the Tigers, was able to make a strong enough connection with Fairley last year to help him elevate his performance. Things like that happen all the time in football, or any sport.
What I don't understand about the one-year-wonder criticism is why it is assumed the one year of eye-popping performances at the end of a player's collegiate career means he is unlikely to do the same as a pro. The fact is, even the best of rookies have their struggles because, well, they're rookies. There have been scores of players who have had multiple impressive seasons in college, but struggled badly during their first year in the NFL. That, too, is part of being a rookie. Some of them rebound to have great NFL careers, some don't.
Another issue that has been raised about Fairley is his lack of consistent effort, that he is selective about when he goes full speed in a game. This isn't entirely uncommon among college players. But isn't it at least part of the duties of NFL coaches to push the right buttons with all of their players?
Fairly looks as if he could be every bit as much of a difference-maker as any other highly-touted defensive lineman in a draft proclaimed to have an abidance of such players. He belongs among the elite, right up there with Alabama's Marcell Dareus.
Dareus might have the edge as a run-stopper, but there is no denying that Fairley is a disruptive force in the middle. When you watch him play on tape, you see a 6-foot-3, 291-pound behemoth move with the speed and agility of someone much smaller. You also see him usually end up in the opponent's backfield before the quarterback can throw or hand the ball to a running back.
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That explains how Fairley ended up with 24 tackles for losses -- including 11.5 sacks for minus-74 yards -- and 21 quarterback hurries. In a pass-driven league, you want your defensive tackles to do exactly that.
Then there is the matter of Fairley's reputation for being a "dirty" player. It is a fact that he was frequently penalized last season for late hits. There is a fine line between "dirty" and "nasty." Ndamukong Suh, the defensive tackle who the Detroit Lions made the second overall pick last year, negotiated it well enough to earn Defensive Rookie of the Year honors along with a reputation that gives opponents a little something to think about.
Fairley could end up being that kind of a player. The question is, which team is going to choose not to overreact to all those dubious alarms and make him the high draft choice that he should be?