Nick Fairley was one of the NFL’s best bargains last season.
That won’t be the case again this year.
The New Orleans Saints defensive tackle is scheduled to be a free agent for the third year in a row. But he should finally be in line for a lucrative long-term deal after having a career season with the Saints in 2016.
Both Fairley and the Saints have expressed a desire to stay together, especially since Fairley is close to his family, just two hours from his hometown of Mobile, Alabama.
But Fairley’s price tag will have a lot to say about that. And he will likely draw more suitors on the open market this time around after settling for one-year, incentive-laden “prove-it” contracts with the St. Louis Rams in 2015 and Saints in 2016.
Fairley’s uncertain future is why I have defensive tackle ranked fifth in my position-by-position breakdown of the Saints’ offseason needs. Otherwise, the Saints have some solid depth there after drafting Sheldon Rankins in Round 1 last year, David Onyemata in Round 4 last year and Tyeler Davison in the fifth round in 2015.
Current depth chart:
Sheldon Rankins: Age 22, signed through 2019 (*Saints control option for 2020). 2017 salary and bonuses: $1.03 million. 2017 salary-cap number: $2.91 million.
Nick Fairley: Age 29, unrestricted free agent.
Tyeler Davison: Age 24, signed through 2018. 2017 salary and bonuses: $615,000. 2017 salary-cap number: $669,306.
David Onyemata: Age 24, signed through 2019. 2017 salary and bonuses: $540,000. 2017 salary-cap number: $675,586.
Ashaad Mabry: Age 24, scheduled to be restricted free agent in 2019. 2017 salary and bonuses: $465,000. 2017 salary-cap number: $465,000.
Justin Zimmer: Age 24, scheduled to be exclusive rights free agent in 2018. 2017 salary and bonuses: $465,000. 2017 salary-cap number: $465,000.
Fairley’s market value is very hard to predict. He had a career-high 6.5 sacks and 43 tackles in a career-high 16 games played last year. His 22 quarterback hits tied for 13th in the NFL, and he had nine tackles-for-loss.
If those kind of numbers were the norm for Fairley, he’d probably make more than $10 million per year like other top-tier defensive tackles.
However, it took several years for Fairley to start showing that kind of consistent production after a turbulent start to his career with the Detroit Lions from 2011 to 2014. Fairley battled injuries, weight gain and questions about maturity and work ethic before he really started to turn things around in 2014 by hiring a personal chef and keeping the weight down (he is listed at 308 pounds but said he has been closer to 290 for the last three years).
We know teams have been skeptical about Fairley in the past, since he has been in the open market in each of the past two years. While many teams showed interest (including the New England Patriots last year), he settled for one-year deals both times. His deal with the Rams was reportedly worth $5 million, plus incentives. His deal with the Saints was worth $3 million, though it climbed to $4.5 million because of the incentives he hit.
Chances are, teams will feel more secure about Fairley now that he’s had two very good seasons in a row -- both in his production and his work ethic. Saints coach Sean Payton said last year, “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.”
Most likely, Fairley’s next contract will be a multi-year deal with more guaranteed money, maybe worth somewhere between $6 million and $9 million per year? I know that’s wide range, but like I said, his value is tough to gauge.
The Saints like Fairley -- but they don't need to break the bank for him since Rankins and Onyemata both play the same position as three-technique tackles. Ideally the Saints would keep all of them, though, because they think the big men are most effective in a rotation, and they can play together on passing downs.
Rankins appears to have a very bright future after tallying four sacks and a forced fumble in just nine games played as a rookie after returning from a broken fibula he suffered in training camp. Rankins should be a centerpiece for New Orleans’ rebuilding defense, a role he said he will embrace.
Onyemata, who grew up in Nigeria and just learned the sport when he went to college in Canada, seems to have been a nice diamond-in-the-rough find for the Saints.
And Davison did a nice job last year, earning a starting gig at nose tackle. However, that is a spot where the Saints could potentially upgrade or find more rotational help.