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10 Mar 2011
by Doug Farrar
Ndamukong Suh didn't do the defensive tackle class of 2011 any favors. When the best defensive college football player I've ever seen went from Nebraska to Detroit and started destroying professional offensive linemen as he had with the Cornhuskers, Suh set a curve that very few players could live up to. However, while there is no single tackle in this class with Suh's ridiculous skill set, this class of linemen may be the most loaded we've ever seen. Most agree that the two top entrants in the 2011 group are in-state rivals Nick Fairley of Auburn and Alabama's Marcell Dareus.
Each man backed up impressive game tape with outstanding scouting combine and Pro Day performances; team preference will be based more on scheme need and the attraction of this ability or that to add to a certain kind of defense. Each man also has flaws that brings us back to "reality" after a pre-draft period of Suh-watching last year.
A key man on Alabama's 2009 national championship defense, Dareus refused to bend to the kind of hit in production you'd expect after guys like Terrence Cody and Rolando McClain left for greener pastures. He amassed 33 tackles in both the 2009 and 2010 seasons, and saw his sack total drop from six to five, despite many more double teams.
At 6-foot-3 and 319 pounds, Dareus is an inch shorter and 18 pounds heavier than Fairley, but his short-area speed is impressively similar; Dareus actually put up a better 10-yard split than Fairley at the combine (1.68 to 1.72), and that quickness shows up on tape. The most impressive thing about Dareus at the college level is his ability to play all over the line; when I was at the combine this year, a prime subject of discussion was the need in increased NFL hybrid fronts for linemen who could set up in different spots.
Dareus can drive off the snap and disrupt from the five-tech role. His hand moves serve him well in any position, and he doesn't have a problem I actually see from about half of this defensive line class; their lack of consistent hand disruption will slow their professional development, because they've been able to get away with overpowering tackles in college. Dareus obviously has the straight-up power to drive a man back, but he's just as adept at either disrupting with a rip or swim move, or using his hands to quickly sift his way out of traffic.
He's quicker than fast, and that extends outside as well -- Dareus can mirror a zone slide to the sideline without getting washed out or lost in the scrum, and he's always looking for a clean break through to the ball carrier. But where I really like him is inside as a three-tech in a 4-3 base, because he's so adept at splitting double teams and his ability to peel off blockers and redirect himself in a hurry is pretty amazing for a guy his size. Dareus diagnoses the action at the line very well; you don't often see him getting juked out of a play. And his upper body is so strong, you'll sometimes see him reach to extend and take a guy down with one hand.
On the down side, he can get pushed out of a play by a double-team -- it isn't quite the problem that it was for Gerald McCoy a year ago, but it is enough for Dareus' hand moves to be a real point of emphasis with his NFL coaching staff. When it comes to "strength skills" like the ability to consistently hold the point, I tend to debit players more than I would with simple schematic issues.
That said, I think that if you put Dareus in a legit strength program (not that Alabama's isn't, but the NFL trains its athletes at a different level), he'll match that interest with tremendous consistency and production. He's not a flashy guy, and I do think that whatever edge rush he showed in college might be negated by better tackles at the NFL level, but he'll be an outstanding inside run-stopper with the potential for multiple sacks and pressures when splitting center-guard combos and running certain stunts and loops.
"It's the little things that matter," Dareus said at the combine of the lessons learned from head coach Nick Saban. "Finishing through the line, finishing up on your reps, follow through with your hands, follow through on your stunts, watching film, studying offensive linemen, point of attack, which hand they like to hit with. There are a lot of things he taught me along the way and a lot of things I already had in my arsenal -- he brought more things to it. It was a good combination. He taught us all a whole lot."
And that's what I like best about Dareus; he is the complete package, though he doesn't always flash off the tape. Dareus has said that Warren Sapp is the reason he plays football, and Sapp has said that Dareus is the best three-tech in this draft class. I don't see Sapp's pure explosiveness in Dareus, but I do think that he could have a similar effect in focusing blocking efforts in his direction as the pointman in an elite defense.
While Dareus is the do-it-all "safe" option (and I hesitate to use that word, because it often sounds pejorative when it isn't meant to be), Nick Fairley is a nitro cocktail, both good and bad. Fairley wanted to attend Auburn as a highly-touted prospect out of high school, but had to ride the JuCo train for two years because he didn't qualify academically. After a one-sack season for the Tigers in 2009, Fairley just blew up in 2010, amassing 11.5 sacks and becoming the best interior disruptor in the college game.
As a three-tech speed rusher (especially in a wide three-tech), Fairley has undeniable potential at any level. The first thing that shows up on the tape -– and it's on a play-to-play basis -- is that he is never content to push up against his blocker and move mass; Fairley is always looking for a gap, or a lane, or an edge. He thinks more like a pass rusher than an earthdog. That said, he's also tremendously effective shading off center because he'll draw double-teams and force the action away from him, opening things up for other defenders. That's obviously a primary value point among defensive tackles, and probably the primary one that doesn't show up on a stat sheet -- how often do offensive adaptations to this player's presence force holes in other areas of the line?
Fairley also has the potential to disrupt over or off center, by way of the Stunt 4-3 move made famous by Joe Greene. I saw Suh use this technique, which has the one-tech tackle lining up between center and guard at a 45-degree angle, and the other tackle stunting through the gap, and Fairley brings a similar destructive impulse to the technique. He's also adept with pure inline power, blowing guards back in a way that makes me think he'll be able to do the same thing at the next level.
However, there are issues. Fairley has a well-deserved reputation as a cheap-shot artist, and given the NFL's renewed focus on punitive action in response to any tactic deemed outside the rulebook, Fairley could find a James Harrison-sized target on his back before he even gets up and running at the NFL level. In addition, his aggressiveness at the line has been a problem before, and it'll be an even bigger one in the NFL -– I can see savvy quarterbacks putting Fairley on a hook with their cadences. And though he worked out well at the combine and his Pro Day, there are lingering questions about his conditioning.
Fairley got a lot of Suh comparisons for a while, based on his ability to slice and dice blocking schemes, but a closer look at the tape reveals fundamental flaws in Fairley's game that aren't in Suh's. The main issue I have, beyond the extracurricular stuff, is the fact that he can be pushed back and to the side; I don't see the root strength I see in Dareus, and he doesn't have the lower-body base I like to see in a potentially elite run-stopper. He plays too high at times, which is when these problems are magnified.
Issues aside, I have great faith in Fairley's ability to blast through gaps at any level. We discussed Warren Sapp before, and Fairley actually reminds me a lot of the later-era Sapp, the guy who played for the Oakland Raiders from 2004 through 2007. That Sapp tended to play a bit too high, would lose power at times, and developed a penchant for drawing the attention of the officials. Fairley has the potential to turn back the clock and become the Sapp that destroyed everyone in Tampa Bay, but it will take the upper edge of his intensity and work ethic to get there.
"It actually increased it a lot," Fairley said at the combine of Suh's impact on the game and on an increased public focus to the defensive tackle position. "Ndamukong Suh, great player, great player. Winning defensive rookie of the year, I think it helped us out a lot, him coming out last year with the impact that he had on the college game. Now all of the D tackles are starting to make some noise. Him coming out and making a lot of noise in college helped us out a lot."
Now, it's time for Fairley and Dareus to be noisemakers, and to keep the interest high. Perhaps Suh did these new kids a few favors after all.
13 comments, Last at 14 Mar 2011, 10:17am by Dean