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Top of NFL draft expected to have distinct Iron Bowl flavor

MONTGOMERY, Ala. -- That nasty Alabama-Auburn rivalry is spilling over into the NFL draft.

The in-state rivals, who have divvied up the past two BCS National Championships and Heisman trophies, figure to have a heavy presence in the top 10 Thursday night -- and, possibly, in the top two.

Who will win the Carolina Panthers' No. 1 pick derby: Auburn quarterback Cam Newton or Alabama defensive lineman Marcell Dareus, the Crimson Tide or Tigers? Maybe neither, but those two are the names most often mentioned in that conversation.

Tide receiver Julio Jones and Tigers defensive lineman Nick Fairley also are expected to go in the top 10, probably followed later in the round by Alabama's Heisman Trophy-winning running back Mark Ingram.

If that top-10 foursome happens, it will be only the fifth time since the AFL-NFL merger in 1970 that schools from the same state have delivered four of the first 10 players chosen in the draft -- and the second year in a row.

Oklahoma and Oklahoma State accounted for all but two of the opening six picks last year, led by Sooners quarterback Sam Bradford at No. 1.

California has done it three times, most recently in 1994. Florida, Pennsylvania and Alabama each have come close, claiming four of the top 11 picks in various drafts.

Maybe it's fitting that 'Bama and Auburn take center stage Thursday since they've done just that the past two seasons.

All five of the state's likely first-rounders skipped their senior seasons to turn pro. For Ingram, it's nice to have the company of his former teammates.

"We all came in together, we all hung out together all throughout college," he said. "We've been supporting each other and talking to each other and putting each other through this. We all have each other's back throughout this process."

If producing No. 1 overall picks is a competition -- and what isn't in this rivalry -- then Auburn is winning. Newton is trying to join Bo Jackson (1986), Aundray Bruce (1988) and Tucker Frederickson (1965) as Auburn players who were the top NFL choice.

The only Tide player to be chosen first was quarterback Harry Gilmer in 1948.

Alabama has reclaimed its draft prominence under coach Nick Saban, with a top 10 pick each of the past two years after a seven-year drought without a first-rounder.

The Tide hasn't had three first-round picks since John Copeland, Eric Curry and George Teague in 1993.

The Tigers had Ronnie Brown, Carnell Williams and Carlos Rogers in the top 10 in the 2005 draft and quarterback Jason Campbell also went to the Redskins later in the round. But they've had only one first-rounder -- guard Ben Grubbs in 2007 -- since then.

Except perhaps for Dareus, the five current contenders have had to deal with various issues leading up to the draft.

Fairley has faced questions about his work ethic, and Ingram about his surgically repaired knee. Both said those concerns are groundless. Newton had a dazzling, Heisman-worthy season during his lone year at Auburn, but he played the second half under the cloud of an NCAA investigation stemming from his father's solicitation of money during the player's recruitment by Mississippi State.

The governing body hasn't publicly implicated either Auburn or Newton in any wrongdoing, but the investigation is ongoing.

Jones rehabilitated his foot in Tuscaloosa after having surgery shortly after the NFL Combine. He ran a 4.39-second 40-yard dash two days after a stress fracture was discovered.

"It's not frustrating at all," Jones said after Alabama's pro day. "When you're in the league, you're going to be injured. It's basically how you deal with it, and I deal with injuries very well."

Then there's Dareus, who played through an ankle injury during his lone season as a full-time starter. He has apparently overtaken Fairley, a Lombardi Award winner who was once a popular pick to go No. 1.

"Marcell Dareus is more complete," ESPN draft analyst Todd McShay said. "When you talk about on-the-field comparisons, that's where I would point to. No, he's not the athlete that Nick Fairley is, but he's stronger against the run. He provides more versatility.

"He has great instincts, toughness and strength in terms of taking on blockers, shedding blockers, finding the ball and going and making plays."

Saban touted his star lineman's "great character" and ability to play multiple positions at Alabama and beyond as important qualities for prospective employers.

"You're going to get a good day's work out of him all the time," Saban said, "and I think people really appreciate that."

Copyright 2011 by The Associated Press

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