I’ve never been to any of the campuses of Copiah-Lincoln Community College. I’ve never stepped foot on their practice field in the heat of August. I have no idea if its facilities are those of a polished football factory, or of a rural high school. Is the grass lush and green, or dusty and scraggly? Is a cajun waterboy at the ready with a filtered backpack, or is there a garden hose with holes in it zip-tied to a chain link fence? I don’t know. I do know that Wesson, Mississippi is a long way from the bright lights of SEC football—and that’s where a huge, cat-quick pass-rusher from Mobile named Nick Fairley expected to be. Fairley told an Alabama TV station:
Juco, it kept me humble. Coming out of high school, everybody is going to the D-I school with a big guy, so everybody knows you. They are going into the big time D-I . . . juco was a great eye-opener and got me level headed and ready to go. So when I got to Auburn, I was ready.
For many players, it’s a long and winding road to the NFL. But for Nick Fairley, it was a long and winding road just from high school to the college of his choice. He was rated as just 3-star DE/DT prospect by both Scout.com and Rivals.com, though my suspicion is that had more to do with his lack of grades than a lack of potential. Clearly, a 6’-4,” 257-pound pass rusher with multiple SEC offers is more than a middle-of-the-road prospect.
Despite strong mutual interest with Auburn, and a verbal commitment, Fairley wasn’t academically able to attend Auburn. After graduating from Lillie B. Williamson high school, he went straight to Copiah-Lincoln, a JUCO which has fed several top prospects to Auburn. After that redshirt year, Fairley terrorized the JUCO competition: he racked up 63 tackles (9.0 per game), 9 TFL (1.3 per game), 28 QB hits (4.0 per game), and 7 sacks (1.0 per game). He also notched two fumble recoveries, one forced fumble, one blocked kick and seven pass breakups.
Throughout, Fairley kept his eyes on the prize; he never wavered in his commitment to Auburn. By the time he was ready to sign with a DI program, Fairley was up to 295 pounds; Rivals maintained Fairley’s 3-star status, but Scout.com re-ranked Nick as a four-star JUCO recruit. Fairley was thrilled to re-commit:
"I'm very excited to re-commit to Auburn," said Fairley. "I've been waiting on this for a long time, since I went to junior college. Auburn is where I wanted to go out of high school so I decided to stick with them.
"I'm ready to go to Auburn, work hard, get my grades and make an impact."
. . . except it didn't quite work out that way. After recommitting in May of 2008, the Tigers’ 2008 season ended with the resignation of head coach Tommy Tuberville. Having spent a year and a half at Cop-Lin with visions of War Eagles dancing in his head, he didn’t re-open his recruiting. Fairley signed his NLI to attend Auburn on December 17th. However, in January it was discovered that one of his correspondence classes wasn’t completed by the deadline, so Nick had to enroll in late May—missing the spring practices of his sophomore year.
When asked about his unwavering commitment to the Tigers, even after a staff change and the academic goofup, Fairley pointed to the presence of “Coach Rock,” former Auburn standout Tracy Rocker:
“When he was at Auburn, he won the Outland and Lombardi trophies. Not too many defensive linemen have done that. He must know something. He's also been to the (NFL) so he knows what it takes. I would rather get coached by someone that's been there and done it."
Despite missing spring ball—thus being behind his teammates in knowledge of the defense and scheme—Fairley started the Tigers’ first game of 2009, against Louisiana Tech. He had five tackles, a fumble recovery, half a TFL, and 2 QB hits--but also looked every bit as raw as he was. Coach Gene Chizik:
“Being a defensive lineman and starting your first game, things get hairy down there,” Chizik said. “That’s a whole different world down there on the defensive line because it’s so physical. It’s just the nature of the position. Nick played high a little bit, but overall really tried to play physical and tried to play with some effort. I think he falls into the category of we’ve got a long way to go to get him where he needs to be. I think he’s got a chance down the road to be a really good player.”
Fairley would play in all 13 games—and get one more start—his sophomore year. Playing mostly as a reserve, Fairley still notched 28 total tackles, 3.5 TFL, and 1.5 sacks. Impressively, his first career sack (for minus 14 yards) came against Georgia—and he blocked a PAT against Tennessee, maintaining a 13-6 lead right before halftime. He repeated the five-solo-tackle performance of his first game in the last game that season, roughing up Northwestern in a nailbiter of an Outback Bowl.
At this point, it seems kind of ridiculous to recap Fairley’s junior season at Auburn. I’ll just copy and paste from his official bio:
CAREER -- Won 2010 Lombardi Trophy, becoming second player in school history to win the award joining his position coach, Tracy Rocker who won the award in 1988 ... Set AU single-season record of 24.0 TFL's in 2010, setting record against South Carolina in SEC Championship Game ... Also set AU single-season record with 11.5 sacks during junior season, setting record against Oregon in BCS National Championship Game ... Earned Defensive MVP honors of BCS National Championship Game vs. Oregon.
2010 -- Lombardi Award winner (nation's best lineman) ... Nagurski Award finalist ... Associated Press SEC Defensive Player of the Year ... FWAA All-America Team ... Walter Camp All-America Team ... Sporting News First-Team All-America ... SI.com First-Team All-America ... Associated Press First-Team All-America ... CBSSports.com First-Team All-America ... Rivals.com First-Team All-America ... Coaches' First-Team All-SEC ... Associated Press Unanimous First-Team All-SEC ... Phil Steele First-Team All-SEC ... ESPN.com All-SEC ... Outland Trophy semi-finalist ... CBSSports.com Midseason All-America ... Phil Steele's Midseason All-America First-Team ... SEC Defensive Lineman of the Week (11/26-27) ... SEC Defensive Lineman of the Week (10/23) ... SEC Defensive Lineman of the Week (10/16) ... SEC Defensive Lineman of the Week (10/2) ... SEC Defensive Player of the Week (9/13) ... Started all 14 games and totaled 60 tackles with 24.0 TFL's and 11.5 sacks ... Had at least 1.0 TFL in 12 of 14 games and a sack in eight games ... 1st in SEC / 12th in NCAA in sacks (11.5) and 1st in TFL's (3rd in NCAA) (24.0) .
Look, the dude ate people, okay? Nick Fairley subsisted on the flesh, souls, and hearts of opposing offensive linemen. He looked like a man amongst boys, even at the heart of an SEC defense. So, what changed from his sophomore year? What transformed him from a raw, promising prospect to a world-devourer? Fairley told the LA Times that, again, DL coach Tracy Rocker played a huge role:
Tracy Rocker, Auburn's defensive line coach, gets the Tiger's share of credit for fine-tuning Fairley's considerable skill set.
"Coach Rocker flipped a switch to turn on," Fairley said.
This is the most intriguing side of Nick Fairley. For all of the talk of “questions” and “immaturity,” for all of the whispers about his work ethic and his commitment, he has unwavering respect for anyone who’s done it themselves. Tracy Rocker accomplished exactly what Nick Fairley wanted to accomplish, and Rocker was able to get Fairley to play at a dominant level. If only the Lions had someone who could command Fairley’s respect and attention . . .
On whether it concerns him that he'll be part of a three- or four-man rotation at defensive tackle:
"Aww man, playing with Suh is going to be an honor. That guy was the defensive rookie of the year, so to be able to play next to him… I can't wait to get in and pick his brain for the things he did his rookie year."
He did get a chance to speak with Suh shortly thereafter:
On having talked to Suh: “I talked to Suh today and he gave me some great advice; I talked to Kyle Vanden Bosch and all of them guys. I’m really just ready to go and I want to pick their brain … They’re going to give me some great advice so I can come in as a rookie and know what to do.”
On what Suh said to him: “He basically was like, ‘Man, you’ve got be ready to come to work; they’re going to push you and try to get the best out of you, but you’re going to have fun.’ He said that’s one thing that they do here is: have fun and work hard. So I’m ready to come here and get things together.”
I firmly believe that Nick Fairley is walking into the best possible situation. Not only is the Lions’ defensive line one of the most talented position groups in the game, it’s got the strongest culture. Kyle Vanden Bosch sets the bar for effort, intensity, and consistency as high as it will go. Ndamukong Suh is a physical freak and firebreathing monster on the field, a gentle giant with rare understanding off it. Lawrence Jackson is a brilliant young man with a poet’s soul—and a first-round pick’s tools and production. Cliff Avril plays with joy and abandon, but has relentlessly built his body and game up from a third-round OLB ‘tweeter to a prototypical 4-3 rush end. Corey Williams is a naturally big-bodied man who really, really, really can’t wait to get at the quarterback.
Leading them all is position coach Kris Kocurek, whose approach and creativity has drawn raves from players, coaches, and observers alike. Working closely with Kocurek is Gunther Cunningham, who combines a well-earned rep for exacting standards and profane tirades with a genuine love for his players and colleagues deeper than could ever let on in public (even though he lets on in public, too). On top of all that, of course, is Jim Schwartz, The Grandmaster, who drew consistently excellent performance out of notoriously inconsistent talents like Albert Haynesworth and Jevon Kearse.
I don’t want to wax too poetic here—but the Lions have built a truly special unit, a group of players and coaches who will define the identity of this team for years to come. If Nick Fairley wants to get where he says he wants to go, all he’ll have to do is show up in Allen Park and follow his teammates’ lead. If he can stay relentlessly committed to Auburn through the two-year odyssey in between graduating high school and stepping onto campus, he can do that. Frankly, I don’t think his teammates will let him fail. But of course, I’ve written enough about the Lions’ current linemen. What are the experts saying about Nick Fairley?
- Sideline Scouting:
Positives: Very solid athlete... Good size... Very solid pass rusher... Long arms... Uses his hands well... Quick off the ball... Disruptive... Gets in the backfield... Plays with good leverage... Reasonably good strength... Solid power... Can get penetration... Very solid bull rush... Solid strength at the point of attack... Shoots gaps well... Good arsenal of pass rush moves... Great swim move... Can split and slice through some double teams... Does a good job shedding single blockers and making plays on the ball... Good flexibility and body control... Plays the run well... Does a nice job in pursuit... Actively chases the ball... Makes plays in the backfield versus the run... Stays low... Looks comfortable dropping into short coverage... Good recognition skills... High motor... Plays with intensity... Mean streak... Played through an injured shoulder toward the end of the 2010 season... Tremendous upside... Finished third in the FBS with 24 tackles for loss in 2010... Schematic versatility, could also get looks as 3-4 LDE... Compares to Warren Sapp, Marcus Stroud.
Negatives: Former junior college transfer who started just two games prior to the 2010 season... Can wear down a bit as the game progresses... Will play down to his opponent... Needs to improve lower body strength... Can be engulfed at the point of attack... Questionable work habits... Has taken some undisciplined penalties, and some cheap shots at quarterbacks... Measured in at the combine over an inch shorter and nine pounds lighter than his listed weight, could fall a bit if viewed only as a three-technique tackle who would only appeal to 4-3 teams... Reportedly missed his flight to the combine, missed a team meeting there, and was late for a team interview at his pro day.
- CBS Sports:
Pass rush: Explosive initial burst off the snap. Good flexibility and balance to "get skinny" and penetrate gaps. Uses his hands well to slap away blockers' attempts to get their hands on him. Possesses a rare combination of long arms and quick feet, helping him avoid cut blocks. Good swim move. Locates the ball quickly and has the lateral agility to redirect. Good short-area closing burst. Good effort in pursuit. Surprising speed for a man of his size.
Run defense: Relies on his quickness to penetrate gaps and make plays behind the line of scrimmage more than his strength to hold up at the point of attack. Long, relatively thin limbed for the position and can be knocked off the ball due to his lack of an ideal anchor. Good flexibility to twist through double-teams. Locates the ball quickly and pursues well laterally.
Explosion: Quick burst to penetrate gaps. Can shock his opponent with his quickness, strong initial punch and quick hands to disengage. Has an explosive burst to close when he sees a playmaking opportunity and can make the eye-popping collision without needing much space to gather momentum.
Strength: Good, but not elite strength, especially in his lower body. Has a tendency to come up at the snap and can be pushed back because of it. Possesses very good natural strength, however, including in his core as he can twist through double teams. Very good hand strength to rip through blocks. Good strength for the pull-down and trip-up tackle.
Tackling: Possesses a good closing burst and brings his hips to supply the big hit. Good strength for the drag tackle. Willing to lay out and has good hand-eye coordination to trip up the ballcarrier running away from him.
Intangibles: Former high school basketball player who shows surprisingly quick feet. An ascending talent, but is nonetheless labeled as a player with some true bust potential, as there are concerns about his work ethic. Carries a little bit of extra weight around his middle and is more "country" strong than weight-room defined. Has developed a reputation as a dirty player; repeatedly flagged in 2010 for late hits and there have been instances when he has speared ballcarriers with his helmet, banged into their lower legs purposely and pushed off downed players to lift himself up. One of nine siblings.
- SI.com gave him a 3.22, their fourth-highest overall grade:
Positives: Game-impacting defensive lineman whose star is on the rise. Displays great movement skills and an explosive burst to the action. Quickly changes direction and effectively makes plays down the line or chases the action in backside pursuit. Plays with good pad level, fires off the snap with a great first step, and shoots through the gaps up the field. Fast off the edge, effective in pursuit, and makes plays in every direction. Constantly doubled by the opposition yet remains a game changer.
Negatives: Must improve his overall strength. Marginal hand use and displays limited moves getting off blocks. Lacks pure power and can be controlled by single blocker. Mostly a first move lineman that must beat opponents off the snap. Not known as a hard worker in practice.
Analysis: Fairley comes off a career year in which he started the season hot and never let up through Auburn's national title game. He possesses the skills and athleticism to be used as a defensive tackle or two-gap end and has an enormous amount of upside. Fairley will be very productive at the next level if he improves the details of his game and works hard on and off the field.
- Pro Football Weekly:
Positives: Very quick off the ball and disruptive. Has explosive hips and is a violent, head-snapping tackler. Good balance and agility. Has long arms and quick, active hands and knows how to keep defenders off his frame. Times the snap well, throws his hips in the hole and wins one-on-one matchups. Can split the double team. Excellent closing speed — smells blood. Rips off blocks and continually shows up behind the line of scrimmage. Flashed the ability to dominate and take over games, as he did late against LSU and Alabama. Plays with a mean streak and continually seeks to punish quarterbacks (knocked three out of games as a junior) and agitate blockers.
Negatives: Plays too upright with an inconsistent pad level and stalls at the line of scrimmage if he does not win at the snap. Does not play with pop in his hands. Cannot dig his heels in the ground against the double-team — was pancaked vs. Georgia OG Clint Boling. Not a glass eater ideally suited to occupy blocks. Tends to freelance, lose gap integrity and, at times, lose the ball. Not smart or disciplined and brain freezes show up in his play. Lacks power and bulk strength. Is only a one-year producer and has underachiever tendencies — loafs on the backside and takes plays off. Lacks stamina. Plays dirty, seeks cheap shots and has been flagged for foolish, unsportsmanlike penalties. Needs to be pushed and is not a self starter.
Summary: An explosive, finesse three-technique, Fairley could make your draft or break your heart. Showed he could be a dominating force for a national championship team, took over games and could be unblockable in the interior of a "40" front if he stays motivated and uses good technique. However, he will require a very nuanced, demanding positional coach and might need to be limited to 40 snaps per game to maximize his talent. The more highly he is drafted, the greater the likelihood that he will bust, as a big pay day easily could sap his motivation. Compares to Saints 2003 sixth-overall pick Johnathan Sullivan (a bust) and could fizzle out of the league as fast as he arrives if he enters a non-challenging, unstructured environment. Has boom-or-bust potential.
- New Era Scouting:
Pass rush: Fairley is the premier one-gap defensive tackle in this year’s class due to his ability shoot the gap and get after the passer. Fairley finished 2010 with 12 sacks, including three in a standout performance against LSU. Most of his big plays come off the swim move. Has quick hands to get his arm over the blocker. Closes in a hurry and with aggression.
Pursuit: Is a player who is almost always on the move toward the ball carrier. Has the athleticism to move all around the line. Despite being somewhat limited in experience, Fairley shows good run/pass recognition. When Fairley plays with a lot of effort, he can move all around the field to make a tackle. But some question if Fairley always gives full effort on every play. As sensational as he is on some plays, Fairley can be completely non-existent on others. It’s an issue that Auburn head coach Gene Chizik brought up early in the season. Fairley showed better effort toward the end the season, however.
Quickness: For player of his size, Fairley has a great burst off the snap. Most of his game is centered around his quickness off the ball. Played basketball in high school and it shows in his foot speed. People will always compare Fairley to Ndamukong Suh and Gerald McCoy and in the quickness category, he’s right there with them. Run defend: Is a long-armed defender who can be disruptive in the run game. Even where the run isn’t coming right at him, Fairley can impact the run game simply by reaching his arms out and rerouting the ball carrier. Does a lot of his work against the run against single blockers. Fairley doesn’t always do well against multiple blockers. Still, he can be an asset against the run by taking up multiple blockers.
Strength: Doesn’t have the kind of strength where he can beat double teams on a consistent basis. Looks like he can get stronger in his lower body. Can get pushed bak too often. Has a frame to add 20 pounds without it having a negative impact on his game.
Tackling: Fairley is a scary tackler. Every time he has room to make a hit, it’s an explosive one. If football doesn’t work for Fairley, his tackling shows he clearly has a future in pro wrestling. He frequently liked to suplex players. Several of Fairley’s tackles could get him fined in the NFL, so it will be interesting to see if he’ll continue his tackling technique at the next level.
Technique: Shows good hand fighting. Uses his hands well to keep blockers out of his pads. Has long arms, which is beneficial to his technique. Doesn’t take false steps that get him out of position.
Is it time? Yes, it's time. It’s more than time. It’s way past time to find out if Nick Fairley will be a boom, or a bust. It’s time to find out if he’ll be the next Warren Sapp or the next Johnathan Sullivan. It’s time to consult the One True Oracle of NFL Success: YouTube highlight reels!
First up, an absolute gem. Here's a high school reel that's just phenomenal. There's no spot shadowing, but just look for the defensive end that's significantly bigger than the defensive tackles, and running faster than the linebackers. He's #90. The best part is around 1:25 when he beats the RT and sacks the quarterback before an unblocked linebacker can get there. No, wait--the BEST part is the MUSIC:
Here's a nice little clip that shows an awesome spin/swim combo sequence at 0:12:
Here's a short film entitled "Fairley Nasty," an ode to Fairley's biggest hits and dirtiest plays throughout his two-year career at Auburn. Of special note are the explosion SF/X laid on top of Ludacris' "Move, B*tch," and Papa Roach's "Last Resort" (!):
Here's Aaron Aloysius not letting me down, providing really nice cutups of Fairley vs. Georgia. This is some proper film right here, and you can see just how frequently, and how hard, he hit A.J. Green that day. I like at 0:33, where the takes on a double-team, anchors, and makes the tackle. Also note 1:50 where he's chop blocked, and shrugs it off.
What stands out to me is Fairley’s body type. Despite being a shade taller and several pounds lighter than Suh, Fairley’s build is completely the opposite. Suh’s upper body is jawdroppingly massive; I’ve said many times that his shoulders are the size of entire hams. From the front of Suh’s chest to the back of his back seems like a distance of nearly three feet. He’s very, very lean through the core but has reasonably thick arms and legs. Fairley, meanwhile, has shockingly thin shoulders and arms for his size; most of his weight is through the middle: he’s big in the britches, thick-thighed, and—while not sloppy fat—has a little fuel tank for his sack machine.
Despite these similar sizes hung on totally different frames, Fairley’s game is almost identical to Suh’s. Similar great first step, similar penetration, similar inside/outside edge rushing ability. He’s not “bad” against the run, but he’s not often going to drop anchor and eat space like Grady Jackson. He plays with an obvious mean streak, and will likely draw some after-the-whistle penalties for crossing the line. He’s too upright at times, and sometimes vacates his lane for the sake of penetration.
Immediately, Fairley projects as a three-tech, just like Suh. However, Suh is a finished product, physically. The only thing he can develop on his frame is adding the gut he doesn’t have—and that would do more harm than good. Fairley, as Rob Rang said above, is “more ‘country’ strong than weight-room defined.” Suh just needs maintain, physically, and focus on execution and technique. But Fairley ought to be able to add significant musculature and strength through NFL conditioning. As he gets up to the “weight class” above Suh, in the 315-325 range, he should evolve into a no-less dominant 1-tech throughout his career.
The comparison I keep seeing is Warren Sapp. Sapp started off as a very similarly built 290-pound penetrating 3-tech, and slowly worked his way up to being a 330-plus-pound 3-4 two-gap DE, before realizing he was better thinner and dropping 50 pounds. I’d hope Fairley could find a happy medium as a two-way 1-tech pushing about 320, very similar to how Corey Williams is built now—only even more explosive than Williams.
Of course, I can't talk about Fairley without talking about the "whispers." I can't write thousands of words about Nick Fairley without addressing the "rumors." Some think he takes plays off. Some think he doesn’t practice hard. Some think he’s too wrapped up in himself, and will put his feet up as soon as he cashes an NFL paycheck. These "whispers," as far as I can tell, are just people repeating and amplifying each other—there’s never a source, named or un-. Whispers become rumors, rumors become facts. It got so bad that some started speculating Fairley might be the target of a smear campaign. Ultimately, Fairley has never been in a lick of trouble off the field, and—excepting his treatment of quarterbacks—he’s well-behaved on it, too.
Jason Braddock of TheXlog.com summed up my thoughts perfectly:
The concept of the NFL combine is genius and it works great for the coaches / general managers who understand the nature of the beast. Good drafting teams start rumors about prospects that they want to fall to them. Bad drafting teams believe these rumors and play right into the hands of these superior teams. My Golden Rule for the draft assessment is: Listen to everything, believe nothing. What I mean by that is, when you here character rumors, injury concerns, etc, you listen to them but you don’t chalk these up as facts. Instead you do extensive research and find out if these are actual truth based rumors.
Some teams do this, we call those team “playoff” teams. Why? It’s simple, they’re in the playoffs every year because they do the leg work and know fact from fiction. Many NFL teams have become lazy and rely too heavily on the NFL combine. This goes against the first thing I was taught in scouting and that is that your evaluation should be 90% based on game film. When did Nick Fairley get passed by Marcell Dareus in most media draft boards? The answer is after the combine. The game film didn’t change after the combine, but Dareus ran a quick 10 yard split. Who cares, he ran that same speed on the game film that we watched in January, February, March and so on. This shouldn’t make you change your rankings.
CBSsports.com writer Pete Prisco wrote a couple more really nice articles defending Fairley, which ended with a line sure to warm any Lions fan’s heart: “Nick Fairley is the best player in this draft, no matter how many people try to knock him down.” Well, the Lions got the best player in the draft—and Fairley got everything he dreamed about during the long two seasons he spent in junior college. People tried to knock him down, but now it’s his turn to knock people down.