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NFL draft: Who's No. 1?

NEW YORK - Nick Fairley had to admit it. He's starting to get nervous.

The day before the NFL draft, the All-American defensive tackle from Auburn took a trip with some other prospects to Radio City Music Hall, where three days of festivities started Thursday night with the first round.

"To see that draft symbol up on stage and to think that I'm going to be walking up there in about 24 hours, it was wild," Fairley said. "A lot of mixed emotions. Who knows what's going to happen?"

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At least one football expert thinks Fairley shouldn't be nervous. senior writer Pete Prisco says Fairley is the best player in the draft - period. Complete NFL draft coverage

"I might be the only guy who has him ranked that high, but you watch how right I am in two years. He will be a force," Prisco says.

Of course, the proverbial "big board" issued by pundits (a pure ranking of the players) is quite different than a mock draft (predicting the order in which players are taken) are two different things. After all, a team's positional need can often outweigh star potential.

So while Prisco may think Fairley is the cream of the crop, he still thinks Heisman Trophy winner Cam Newton will be the top pick by the Carolina Panthers. So do three other experts - Clark Judge, Rob Rang and Chad Reuter. Mock drafts Risers and fallers

But while Rang has the Auburn QB going first to the Panthers, he lists LSU's Patrick Peterson as "simply the best player in the draft."

As Rang points out, assessing players goes beyond looking at raw talent.

"I'm most interested in identifying players who, along with those physical traits, possess the maturity, intelligence and work ethic to become NFL stars," he writes.

Some other players who have been mentioned as the possible best player in this year's draft: Alabama's Marcell Dareus, Texas A&M's Von Miller, Georgia's A.J. Green and Missouri's Blaine Gabbert.

And that's just a partial list.

As for Newton, he may be the consensus No. 1 overall pick but Judge says the jury is still out on the star Auburn QB.

"Sooner or later, he will be the Panthers' starter, and then what happens is anyone's guess. There is no consensus pick this year, and Newton is high-risk, high-reward. People love him or hate him, and here's hoping Carolina knows what it's doing. More than Cam Newton's career could depend on it," Judge writes.

The NFL draft always is a guessing game, but never before has it been accompanied by so much uncertainty.

Not just who will go first overall — the betting favorite is Newton — but who goes where and when beyond that.

And this year, the selection process has the added element of labor strife — a lockout stopped by a federal judge earlier this week.

"The world doesn't stop spinning, we have to keep running and working," Baylor guard Danny Watkins said. "It's just disappointing the timing of it, but there's nothing we can do about it."

The draft has been the league's only order of business since the lockout began March 12. A record 25 prospects accepted invitations to attend the draft itself, and 13 were on hand Wednesday for an NFL event with grade schoolers at a park on the West Side of Manhattan.

A dozen of the players spoke to the media after playing some flag football with the kids. Newton skipped out on the interviews. He took a few minutes to high-five some of the youngsters and sign autographs before slipping out a side gate with a few associates and into a waiting SUV.

The other players expressed little concern the labor impasse would affect the 2011 season.

"This is America's game," LSU cornerback Patrick Peterson said. "I can't see the world without NFL football."

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