Nick Fairley's free-agent market value -- one of the most intriguing question marks of the New Orleans Saints' offseason -- should finally be taking shape.
Although no word has leaked yet on the level of interest Fairley is receiving around the league, the 29-year-old defensive tackle is now free to negotiate with other teams after the NFL's window for legal tampering opened on Tuesday afternoon. So we should find out very soon.
Fairley and other unrestricted free agents around the league can officially begin signing with new teams on Thursday at 4 p.m. ET. Or they can re-sign with their current teams anytime.
Here is a brief outlook on the Saints' key free agents:
DT Nick Fairley (ranked No. 73 among ESPN's top 150 free agents). Fairley should finally earn a lucrative long-term contract after settling for one-year “prove it” deals with the Rams in 2015 and the Saints in 2016. The former first-round pick of the Detroit Lions battled injuries and questions about his work ethic and maturity early in his career. But he has improved on all counts over the past two years, including a career-best season in New Orleans with 6.5 sacks and 22 QB hits.
I think there's a great chance Fairley will remain with the Saints, since they were such a good fit together and Fairley liked playing close to his hometown of Mobile, Alabama. Plus, I think his price tag will remain reasonable. However, if a team wants Fairley badly enough, the Saints could be outbid, since they also have promising young tackles Sheldon Rankins and David Onyemata playing the same position.
G Jahri Evans (unranked). The Saints admitted they made a mistake by releasing the six-time Pro Bowler last year. Luckily, they re-signed him in September, and Evans went on to have his best season in two or three years. The 33 year old stayed healthy and benefited from dropping about 15-20 pounds. It makes sense for them to re-up for one more year while investing in a future replacement in the draft. But it's also possible the Saints will look to upgrade with a younger, more expensive free agent since the market is loaded with top guards.
CB Sterling Moore (ranked No. 140). It's surprising that the 5-foot-10, 202-pounder has bounced around with six teams since going undrafted in 2011, since he has played so well in stints with New Orleans, Tampa Bay, New England and Dallas. Moore, 27, is a confident, physical cover man who bailed out the Saints as a Week 1 addition in 2016. He started 12 games for their injury-riddled secondary, leading the team with 13 passes defensed and two interceptions. Moore should definitely be a priority to re-sign as a nickel back -- unless another team is willing to outbid the Saints.
RBs Tim Hightower (unranked). Hightower has been the ideal backup -- and one of the NFL's great comeback stories -- over the past two years. After a knee injury kept him out of the NFL for more than three years, he came back with the Saints and racked up a combined 923 rushing yards, 329 receiving yards and nine touchdowns over the past two years. The 30 year old has also proven he can handle a full-time workload when needed, with a 100-yard rushing game each year. He's a no-brainer to re-sign unless another team pays him to play a much bigger role.
DEs Paul Kruger, Darryl Tapp and restricted free agent Kasim Edebali (all unranked). All three of these guys are solid rotational players. But I don't expect all of them back, since I expect New Orleans to try and upgrade the edge-rusher position through both free agency and the draft. Kruger, 31, has 35 career sacks in eight years with the Ravens, Browns and Saints, but his production has dropped off a bit with a total of just four sacks in the past two years. Tapp, 32, has 28 career sacks in 11 years with five different teams (0.5 last year with New Orleans). And Edebali is an athletic former undrafted rookie who has shown promise with eight sacks in three years -- but has yet to reach the level of full-time starter.
G/C Tim Lelito (ranked No. 130). Lelito also showed promise as an undrafted find in 2013. But the 27 year old has been unable to lock down a full-time starting gig, despite a total of 24 career starts at both guard and center. Perhaps it's time for a change of scenery for the 6-foot-4, 315-pounder, whose versatility and experience will be attractive.
S Roman Harper. Harper, 34, was a two-time Pro Bowler and key member of the Saints' Super Bowl team, who came back last year after a two-year hiatus with the rival Panthers. He played a minor role as a backup/special teamer with 29 tackles and no takeaways, and he was valued in the locker room. I could see him back in the same role if he wants to keep playing.
LB Michael Mauti. Mauti, 27, is a New Orleans native who has been a great addition as a backup linebacker and core special teams player (a captain in 2016). He is expected to be healthy after having surgery for ulcerative colitis last year. So I expect him back unless another team values him even more in a similar role.
RB Travaris Cadet. The versatile 28 year old has been a decent jack-of-all-trades for the Saints as a runner/receiver/return man for the better part of five years. But they could use an upgrade in those areas. So his return is uncertain.
LS Justin Drescher. The 29 year old has been solid in the role for seven years -- flying under the radar like any good long snapper should. But it's possible the Saints could look for an upgrade or a cheaper alternative (or both).