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NFL combine: Dareus or Fairley?

It's a debate that is certain to heat up among the decision makers at One Bills Drive between now and the NFL draft. Creating separation between prospects can prove difficult as the Bills and other NFL clubs adjust and tweak their draft boards with the information gathered at the NFL combine. Perhaps the biggest debate for Buffalo with the third overall pick is determining who gets the edge in a defensive lineman standoff between Alabama's Marcell Dareus and Auburn's Nick Fairley.

Dareus is characterized by many draft analysts as the safer pick with the experience of 32 games played in the SEC and two years of production to offer as hard evidence as to what kind of player he can be at the next level. Fairley has just one year as a starter in major college ball after transferring to Auburn from Copiah-Lincoln junior college, but it was a special year.

Fairley logged 11.5 sacks and was named SEC Defensive Player of the Year and was instrumental in Auburn's ability to hold a high-powered Oregon offense in check en route to a national title. With five tackles, including three for loss, a sack and a forced fumble and Defensive Player of the Game honors Fairley understand why people feel it raised his draft stock.

"Everybody was watching the championship game and we're one of just two college teams playing so I'm sure it helped out a lot," he said. "I made some great plays for my team and excited we came out with the 'W'."

Of course Dareus also has a national title to his credit and was the game's MVP in Alabama's win over Texas the year before. He knocked Colt McCoy out of the game and had a 28-yard interception return for a touchdown.

"The year we won the national championship I feel like I played pretty hard the whole year, but that game was where I made a name for myself and left a mark," said Dareus. "People recognized that and saw that and some other attributes that I brought to the game, and it propelled me to where I am now."

Both also offer versatility as they each could fit in any defensive system. So are there enough differences between Dareus and Fairley to create some room between them for teams like the Bills at the top of the draft?

"I would probably go Marcell right now because I think Nick, even though he had a great first year, there's a lot of gaps in his college career," said NFL Network draft analyst Michael Lombardi. "He had the one year and (before that) didn't play as well and also went JC. So there's a lot of gaps that you have to clean up.

"Bill Walsh had a great saying. Don't take the one year player and look forward. Take the one year player and look back. I've always followed that rule when a guy has one great year. Why didn't he have it the other times?"

Of course Fairley's one year of production can be looked at in a different way. While Dareus' stock is considered more reliable, some NFL talent evaluators may see Fairley's big 2010 season as just the beginning of what he can offer.

"I think Nick Fairley might have a tiny bit more upside than Dareus, but Dareus has a higher floor," said NFL Network draft analyst Mike Mayock. "I think you know what you're getting with Dareus. I would grind the heck out of Nick Fairley because he's a great football players with all kinds of upside, but you just better know what you're getting before you hand that guy millions of dollars."

The only blemish on Dareus' profile is his two-game suspension last season for accepting improper benefits from an agent, who provided airfare and hotel accommodations for two trips to Miami.

"It was just a situation where I learned that everything that looks good isn't always good for you," he said. "Even if it sounds good it isn't all it's cracked up to be. So I apologized to the team, my coaches and everybody. I'm just moving on with that. You can't move forward looking back."

Most draft analysts believe while it will be addressed by NFL clubs, it's something that won't stick with him.

"He had the two game suspension, but when this guy is going and is 100 percent he's as disruptive as any guy in this draft," said ESPN draft analyst Todd McShay. "He's strong. He's a lot stronger than people think. He has great awareness. He's not as athletic as Nick Fairley, but he might be a more complete player when he's 100 percent."

Dareus also has the benefit of pro-style coaching from Nick Saban and playing in a 3-4 defense, giving teams like the Bills a true look at how he would fare in their primary front.

"The defense we played in was a pro style defense," said Dareus. "I'm ready for the league. We did all the things that NFL teams would do. A lot of stunts, and there were a lot of things we had to learn, a lot of coverages and calls and I'm ready for all of that."

Teams will nitpick from now until late April and if Buffalo is fortunate enough to have the choice between the two with the third overall pick the separation is likely to be little more than an eyelash.

That's why even Dareus and Fairley themselves were reluctant to say who the best defensive lineman will be in the eyes of NFL teams. There's a clear mutual respect between them. When Dareus was asked if he felt he was the best he wasn't certain.

"Kinda sorta," he said. "Nick Fairley he had a great year this year. He went out and played his butt off. He's a great competitor. I did the best I could."

"Comparison between me and him," asked Fairley. "He's a great player and I'm a great player. So there's really no comparison."

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