April 20, 2014

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NFL Draft 2011: Is Auburn defensive star getting a Fairley bad rap?

Auburn defensive coordinator Ted Roof has gotten the calls from NFL coaches and general managers. The ones loaded with tough questions about defensive tackle Nick Fairley.

Roof isn’t a draft junkie, but he’s seen and heard enough rumors and reports to know the criticism directed at Fairley. That he’s a one-year wonder who didn’t play hard on every snap and has the potential to be a bust.

So how does Roof sell Fairley to the potential employers in the NFL?

“I’m not out to convince anyone about Nick,” Roof said Thursday by phone. “I’m out to tell the truth. Nick Fairley’s performance speaks for itself.

“The thing that bothers me, if people really take the time to get to know Nick Fairley, there’s no doubt they’re really going to like what they get to know. If you get in that kid’s heart and head, you’re going to love Nick Fairley.”

Fairley was the headliner in the discussion about the most dominant defensive lineman in college football in 2010. He was the best player on the field in the national championship game, earning defensive MVP honors after his five tackles, three tackles for loss, sack and forced fumble helped Auburn beat Oregon.

He finished his junior year with 60 tackles, 24 tackles for loss and 111⁄2 sacks and was installed as the favorite to be the No. 1 overall pick entering the offseason.

Then the search for blemishes began. The most popular is that he’s a one-year wonder.

He transferred from junior college to Auburn for the 2009 season, in which he had 28 tackles, 31⁄2 for loss and 11⁄2 sacks. Fairley said at the scouting combine it took awhile to adjust to the talent of the Southeastern Conference.

“People who say he was a one-year wonder didn’t see how he finished his sophomore year,” Roof said. “People who really study the second half of his first year at Auburn saw growth, saw improvement, saw production. He picked up right where he left off.

“We weren’t shocked. As hard as he worked in the offseason, we expected that to happen. I really respect how far Nick’s come and how hard he’s worked to get to that point. He’s young in the game, he’s got such a huge upside.”

Browns general manager Tom Heckert has studied all the film, and he agrees with Roof.

“He had a really good year, but you can’t say that he didn’t have a good year as a sophomore. I think that’s blown out of proportion,” Heckert said. “I think it’s a great thing to have 11 1/2 sacks as a defensive tackle. That’s impressive.

“There is probably no other defensive tackle that is close to that in the draft, so you can’t say he is a one-year wonder.”

The Browns are desperate for defensive tackles and ends as they switch to a 4-3 scheme. Fairley was once expected to be gone when they pick at No. 6, but lately the consensus is he’ll slide past the Browns. Many analysts consider North Carolina end Robert Quinn to be rated higher.

“I wouldn’t say in everybody’s perception,” Heckert said. “I think (Fairley) is probably going up and down less than what is perceived to be.”

Heckert bristled when asked about the notion that Fairley took plays off at Auburn. So did Fairley.

“I’m a very hard worker on the field, especially at practice,” he said Thursday on NFL Network. “My work ethic is probably the most unfair (criticism) I’ve heard.”

A final knock is that Fairley is a dirty player who takes too many cheap shots. There are YouTube videos devoted to the theory, and he knocked three quarterbacks from games as a junior.

“Did he ever get dirty? No,” Roof said. “It’s a physical game and he plays the most physical position on the field. It’s a war every snap between violent, large men.

“We don’t teach dirty. We teach people to finish, and Nick knows how to finish. I think that’s obvious.”

Fairley’s talent isn’t debatable, neither is the impact he had last season. His athleticism and ability to collapse the pocket separates him from other 6-foot-4, 290-pound tackles.

“I’m a great pass rusher,” he said. “I’ve got a great first step off the line. In the run (game), I can hold down the block, hold down my space.”

Roof said Fairley has a knack for feeling blocks and gaining leverage. He also understands the offensive line’s protections and can identify a weakness before the snap. Roof had a hard time choosing Fairley’s most memorable play, but decided on one against Alabama in a first-and-goal situation.

“He beats the block, crawls about 5 yards, makes the tackle for loss and keeps them from scoring,” Roof said. “Seeing that effort is the thing that always sticks in my mind.”

Football in the South doesn’t get much bigger than Auburn-Alabama. Roof said it’s no coincidence Fairley made his favorite play against the Crimson Tide, or that he dominated against Oregon.

“He had a knack for making a big play when we needed it most,” Roof said. “Great players have a tendency to do that. When we needed it, he got it done.”

Contact Scott Petrak at 329-7253 or spetrak@chroniclet.com. Follow him on Twitter and fan him on Facebook.

SCOTT PETRAK’S TOP OF THE CLASS

Quarterbacks

• Blaine Gabbert, Missouri: The biggest beneficiary of Andrew Luck’s decision to stay at Stanford. Doesn’t fit in class with recent high picks Matt Ryan, Matthew Stafford and Sam Bradford.

• Jake Locker, Washington: Stock fell after disappointing senior season. Only 15-25 as a starter with sub-par accuracy, but extremely athletic and could be a steal late in the first round.

• Cam Newton, Auburn: Might be the most gifted player in the draft. But character and personality issues make him an extremely risky pick. Bust potential greater than star potential.

• Other notables: Ryan Mallett, Arkansas; Colin Kaepernick, Nevada; Ricky Stanzi, Iowa.

• Comment: Who’s available for the Browns at No. 6 will depend greatly on whether Gabbert and/or Newton go in the top five. There’s not a sure thing in this year’s quarterback class.

• How the Browns fit: They seem committed to Colt McCoy, and it would be a shock if they drafted any of the big names. President Mike Holmgren likes to take a project in the late rounds.