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No doubt Nick Fairley is an elite prospect

1/11/2011

There were 11 players in the Tostitos BCS National Championship Game between Auburn and Oregon who receive draftable grades from Scouts Inc., some of whom shined under the bright lights and others who did not fare so well.

Here's what I saw from the NFL prospects on the field in the title game, including two possible first-round picks (as always, draft-eligible underclassmen are noted with asterisks):

Auburn DT Nick Fairley* (Grade: 97)

Fairley recorded three tackles for losses, including a sack, and forced a fumble in Auburn's 22-19 win. He used his quick hands to slip the left guard and finished the play with a big hit that jarred the ball loose on his sack, and Oregon also failed to pick up Fairley on a first-and-10 play late in the first quarter. On that play he showed excellent closing speed for a 299-prospect and his pressure played a big role in QB Darron Thomas throwing an interception.

The quick pace of Oregon's offense did appear to fatigue Fairley at times -- he could be seen breathing heavy between snaps -- but it didn't appear to affect his effort once the play was underway. Officials flagged Fairley for a personal foul early in the third quarter and he needs to a better job of controlling his emotions, but his overall performance solidified his spot as the top defensive tackle in the 2011 class. He has the quickness, active hands and motor to make an immediate impact as a one-gap 3-technique in a base 4-3 defense, and Fairley is likely to be a top-five pick.

Auburn QB Cam Newton*(89)

Newton rushed for 82 yards on 22 carries against the Ducks, and he threw for 265 yards and two touchdowns with one interception. On the plus side, Newton showed above-average arm strength and flashed adequate touch on some downfield passes, and there's obviously a lot to like about his mobility and power in the pocket. He showed good burst on an 18-yard scramble that converted a third-and-12 in the fourth quarter and he shook what could have been a sack to complete his second touchdown pass.

The negatives outweigh the positives for Newton, however. His accuracy was inconsistent at best and he made a poor decision on his interception, and carrying the ball away from his frame and losing a fumble with less than five minutes remaining in a championship game and an eight-point lead is inexcusable. Oregon tied the score following the fumble, but Newton completed just one pass and rushed for one yard on two carries on the ensuing game-winning drive.

Making matters worse, Newton could be seen grimacing late in the fourth quarter and received X-rays on his back following the game. His aggressive running style makes his durability a concern at the NFL level, where he'll take more and bigger hits. It only takes one team to fall in love with him for Newton to come off the board in the first round, but he's a risky pick there should he declare for the draft because he has so much developing to do in order to transition to a pro-style offense.

Oregon RB LaMichael James* (73)

James had a disappointing night running, gaining just 49 yards on 13 carries. In fairness, his offensive line struggled to create seams for him as expected and he generally made the most of the blocking he got. James had a much better night catching the ball, finishing with four catches for 39 yards and two touchdowns.

He showed great vision, burst and balance after the catch, and James did a sound job of recognizing blitzes and picking them up when asked to help out in pass protection. His potential as a change-of-pace back should make him a good value in the third round if he declares for the draft.

Auburn OT Lee Ziemba (70)

Ziemba played with an edge and flashed a strong punch as a run blocker. He got into sound position and held his own in pass protection as well, but his high pad level jumped out at times. Ziemba had a difficult time getting under Oregon's defensive linemen when Auburn ran and he didn't sink his hips low enough in pass protection. Defensive linemen will expose this weakness at the next level unless his technique improves, which is why he projects as a late third- or early fourth-round pick at this point.

Auburn RB Mario Fannin (42)

True freshman Michael Dyer and speedster Onterio McCalebbovershadowed Fannin this year and in this game. He didn't get a carry against Oregon, and while he showed adequate awareness and got into sound position in pass protection Fannin he could have been more aggressive and attacked the legs of blitzing defenders.

On a more positive note, Fannin extended a fourth-quarter drive with a 16-yard catch on third-and-4. He located a soft spot in underneath coverage, got his head snapped around and looked the ball into his hands. In addition, his blend of size and quickness hints at untapped potential. He could prove to be an excellent value in the later rounds.

Auburn WR Terrell Zachery (39)

Zachery caught six passes for 48 yards against Oregon. While he could be more crisp on short-to-intermediate routes, he has above-average top-end speed and he tracked the deep ball well. He's not overly elusive but was productive after the catch, and he snatched the ball out of the air without breaking stride and showed good burst with the ball in his hands. Zachery is a late-round prospect.

Auburn DT Michael Blanc (38)

Blanc recorded three tackles, including a tackle for loss that resulted in a safety. His initial technique on the safety wasn't great -- he was a bit too high and was too quick to turn his shoulders -- but Blanc's recovery was excellent. He used his strong upper body to get off the block and wrap up James in the end zone. He also did a nice job of working down the line when the Ducks tried to run off-tackle, and while he isn't nearly as explosive as Fairley and doesn't project as a starter, Blanc could develop into an effective No. 3 defensive tackle in the NFL.

Auburn C Ryan Pugh (37)

Pugh is a four-year starter and against Oregon he got into sound initial position and fought to sustain once locked on. He won't be as effective in the NFL, however. Power clearly gave him problems at times, and though he got adequate hand placement he didn't jolt Oregon's defensive tackles with violent punches. At best, Push develops into effective backup at the next level.

Auburn K Wes Byrum (36)

Kickers would be hard-pressed to find a better way to impress NFL teams than connecting on the game-winning field goal as time expires in the national championship game. And though he didn't get to show his range on either of his two field goals, Byrum got more than enough distance on his kickoffs and overall looks like a late-round possibility.

Auburn ILB Joshua Bynes (34)

Bynes recorded two tackles and broke up a pass against the Ducks, and while his straight-line speed, muscular frame and toughness make him an intriguing late-round possibility, Bynes didn't do enough to improve his stock. He appeared stiff in space and took too long to get off blocks, and his instincts are also a concern. He failed to recognize a screen until it was too late and got sealed inside on James' second-quarter touchdown catch.

Oregon ILB Casey Matthews (39)

Matthews recorded six tackles, forced a fumble and broke up a pass, setting up Oregon's game-tying drive with the forced fumble. He showed above-average closing speed, awareness and effort while chasing down Newton, and his extension and timing on both the forced fumble and pass breakup were impressive.

Matthews, like most of the Oregon defense, got caught gearing down when Dyer appeared to go down in the middle of what became a 37-yard run late in the fourth quarter, but there is no question Matthews has the motor and enough natural ability to develop into an effective backup linebacker and valuable special teams contributor.