Mel Kiper releases first 2011 NFL Mock Draft, has Fairley going No. 1

For Steeler, Jet, Bear and Packer fans, the 2011 NFL Draft doesn’t exist.

For the rest of us, it’s the only thing that exists.

ESPN’s Mel Kiper has released his first mock draft for 2011 and at least for the time being, he sees Auburn defensive tackle Nick Fairley coming off the board to the Panthers at No. 1.

The No. 1 overall player on the Big Board, and one who can pay immediate dividends. Fairley isn’t just a safe pick because of his excellent burst, violent hand action and ability to effectively penetrate and be a constant nuisance against both the run and pass; he also has the chance to be a dominant player regardless of system. Detroit and Tampa Bay drafted the top defensive tackles at Nos. 2 and 3 last year. Carolina should start earlier in 2011. A slight mean streak in a DT isn’t the worst trait. Even Ndamukong Suh showed a bit of one this season.

Kiper has LSU cornerback Patrick Peterson going to the Broncos at No. 2, Alabama defensive end Marcell Dareus going to the Bills at No. 3, Clemson defensive end Da’Quan Bowers going to the Bengals at No. 4 and Missouri quarterback Blaine Gabbert going to the Cardinals at No. 5.

Regular readers know that I’m a draft nut and I will surely release several mock drafts before April 28 rolls around. I need to compile my notes from the bowl season, however, so I’m not ready to break out my mock 1.0 at this time.

That said, with the way Fairley dominated the BCS title game this year, I can definitely see the Panthers taking him at No. 1. (Don’t forget that new head coach Ron Rivera has a background in defense, so if he’s given his say on draft day, he may want to go with the best defender on the board.)

If you believe the reports, Carolina was set to take Stanford’s Andrew Luck with the top overall pick but now that he’s decided to return to school, who goes No. 1 will be discussed ad nauseum for the next three and a half months.

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