<
>

Saints need big push from new DTs Nick Fairley, Sheldon Rankins

C.J. Spiller was a productive running back for the Buffalo Bills but has been plagued by injuries during his time in New Orleans. AP Photo/Gerald Herbert

Today we'll start a five-part series counting down the top 20 New Orleans Saints players, based on their current value heading into the 2016 season:

No. 20 (tie) RB C.J. Spiller, LB Dannell Ellerbe

Last year’s ranks: Spiller 10th, Ellerbe tie-18th

Both of these guys have the potential to be top-10 players on this list. And both have had dominant years with other teams in the past (Spiller with 1,703 yards from scrimmage for the Buffalo Bills in 2012 and Ellerbe as a key piece of the Baltimore Ravens' 2012 Super Bowl run). But we didn’t get to see much of that in New Orleans last year because they were plagued by nagging injuries -- and we don’t know how much to expect going forward since injuries have been a recurring problem for both veterans.

Spiller played a very limited role last year after a summer knee injury sapped his explosiveness. But he had a couple breakout plays, including an 80-yard overtime touchdown catch to beat Dallas in Week 4. And he insisted that he still believes he can “flourish” in New Orleans’ offense. Ellerbe also showed impressive flashes of being an athletic playmaker in small doses last year. And the Saints were 4-2 in the six games he played.

No. 19 S Roman Harper

Last year’s rank: N/A

Maybe I’m overrating the 10-year veteran here since he is no longer in his prime at 33 years old and will likely play just a part-time role in 2016. But he just got done starting 37 straight games for the Carolina Panthers -- including the Super Bowl. And he was a two-time Pro Bowler for the Saints in his prime. So his peak years and his consistent body of work in later years are both pluses that a lot of guys on this list don’t have.

Harper has always been better when he plays like a pseudo-linebacker closer to the line of scrimmage, blitzing, defending the run and covering tight ends. It sounds like the Saints plan to use him that way in a rotational role.

No. 18 DT Sheldon Rankins

Last year’s rank: N/A

The Saints drafted Rankins with the 12th overall pick this year. And he has exciting potential to be a much-needed force in the middle of their line as both a pass rusher and run defender. The 6-foot-2, 305-pounder had 14 sacks and 26.5 tackles for loss over his final two seasons at Louisville.

However, the No. 17 guy on this list is a reminder of why you can't overrate rookies too much on lists like these until you see them produce on the field.

No. 17 DT Nick Fairley

Last year’s rank: N/A

Fairley was drafted 13th overall by the Detroit Lions in 2011, but he battled injuries and inconsistency in his first four years, facing some questions about his weight and his motivation. The 28-year-old has turned things around in recent years, however, drawing praise in both of those areas. He quietly had a strong 2015 as a rotational backup with the St. Louis Rams. Although Fairley had only 29 tackles and 0.5 sacks, he was lauded by Pro Football Focus for being a disruptive presence up the middle. The Saints beat out other suitors to sign him to a one-year, $3 million contract.

Defensive coordinator Dennis Allen recently described Fairley as a “pleasant surprise” throughout the offseason. Fairley and Rankins both project as three-technique tackles, so they will likely split time in base packages and play together on passing downs.