Nick Fairley, Saints' best FA signing in 2016, back on market in '17

METAIRIE, La. -- The New Orleans Saints should have an edge when it comes to re-signing free agent defensive tackle Nick Fairley.

For one thing, Fairley liked playing just a couple of hours away from his hometown of Mobile, Alabama, especially during an emotional year that included the unexpected death of his mother and the birth of his baby girl.

For another, Fairley had the best season of his six-year career, with a career-high 6.5 sacks and a career-high 22 quarterback hits.

“Well, of course you know I want to be back here, I’m trying to get back here,” said Fairley, who had to rush off to the team’s exit meeting Monday before he could finish the thought and add a “but” to that statement.

The “but” is that Fairley’s market value surely has increased this year after he had to settle for one-year “prove it” deals over the past two seasons, first with the St. Louis Rams in 2015, then with the Saints in 2016.

Fairley’s career got off to a disappointing start after he was drafted in the first round by the Detroit Lions in 2011, thanks to injuries, inconsistency and some admitted issues with maturity, work ethic and weight.

But by all accounts, Fairley has improved in all of those areas for the past three years. And the Saints were benefactors of how far he has come. Fairley’s one-year deal was for $3 million plus incentives, but it wound up being worth $4.5 million since he played more than 65 percent of the defensive snaps and reached 6.5 sacks.

“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,” Saints coach Sean Payton said of Fairley. “I think he played well. I think there were spurts. Obviously he gives us some pass rush. I think this is a place that he feels comfortable.

“And I think he clearly has got good football in him. If you look at his age and saw where he’s at, he’s been relatively healthy and despite the challenge with his mother, I think he played well.”

Fairley is arguably the most important looming free agent for the Saints, who will enter free agency in very good shape this year. They have most of their core players locked up and will enter the offseason with roughly $20 million in salary-cap space even before they trim any current salaries through releases or pay cuts.

Here is a list of New Orleans’ pending free agents:

Starters: DT Nick Fairley, G Jahri Evans, DE Paul Kruger, CB Sterling Moore, FB John Kuhn, LS Justin Drescher

Reserves: RB Tim Hightower, S Roman Harper, DE Darryl Tapp, RB Travaris Cadet, LB Michael Mauti, G Tim Lelito, OT Tony Hills, TE John Phillips, CB Kyle Wilson, S Jamarca Sanford, S Shiloh Keo, LB Sam Barrington, LB Jason Trusnik

Restricted free agents: DE Kasim Edebali, S Chris Banjo