Nick Fairley stays with Saints after career-best season

METAIRIE, La. -- The New Orleans Saints added to a busy first day of free agency Thursday by keeping their own top free agent -- defensive tackle Nick Fairley.

Fairley and the Saints seemed like a perfect match for one another last year when he had his career-best season with 6.5 sacks. Apparently the two sides agreed.

Terms: Four years, $28 million, plus $500,000 per year in incentives. $8 million signing bonus, $14 million in total guarantees.

ESPN 150 ranking: No. 74

Grade A-: The Saints deserve extra credit here for making this match in the first place when they landed Fairley at a bargain rate last year (a one-year deal that wound up being worth $4.5 million with incentives). The only concern was that Fairley might have priced himself out of New Orleans with his career-best season. But a deal in the $7 million-per-year range is right around what I expected, and it feels like a win-win for both sides.

What it means: The Saints still need to improve their pass rush (coach Sean Payton has acknowledged that an edge rusher is a “must” this offseason). But an interior pass-rusher would have turned into a need as well if the Saints hadn’t kept Fairley. The 29-year-old had 6.5 sacks and 22 quarterback hits last year while rotating with rookies Sheldon Rankins and David Onyemata at the three-technique position. The Saints like being able to rotate those big men to keep them fresh. And Fairley and Rankins can line up next to each other on passing downs.

What’s the risk: Fairley used to come with a lot of risk. The 2011 first-round draft pick was plagued by injuries and questions about his weight, his work ethic and his maturity early in his career with the Detroit Lions. But he has steadily improved in all of those areas over the past three years with the Lions, Rams and Saints. Although he is listed at 6-foot-4, 308 pounds, he said his weight has been closer to 290 and under since he started working with a personal chef in 2014. And he seemed to really enjoy playing just two hours away from his hometown of Mobile, Alabama, last year. Payton said after last season, “I know this, there’s a lot different feeling -- at least on our end -- about that player and that person after having been with him a year.”