Expect Nick Fairley To Draw Serious Interest In Free Agency

New Orleans Saints DT Nick Fairley has reportedly decided to test the free agent market this offseason. And he may draw serious interest from some of the teams with cap space.

What to do with Nick Fairley is easily the toughest decision the New Orleans Saints front office has to make over the coming months. After signing a serious of one-year “prove it” deals, Fairley seems finally to have proved he deserves a long term contract. The question is who will give it to him.

Fairley put up career numbers in sacks and tackles in 2016, handling the brunt of DT snaps after rookie Sheldon Rankins broke his leg. His 6.5 sacks at DT are tied for 5th most in the league, along with the likes of Malik Jackson and Fletcher Cox. And while he’s not a run specialist, his 29 solo tackles are nothing to scoff at. DTs don’t typically put up big numbers.

The Saints would obviously love to have Fairley back in 2017. Their defense struggled through much of the season, and Fairley was one of the few bright spots. For a unit that’s trying to lift itself out of the NFL’s cellars, it’s typically imperative not to let talent like Fairley walk.

Dec 11, 2016; Tampa, FL, USA; New Orleans Saints defensive tackle Nick Fairley (90) against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers during the second half at Raymond James Stadium. Tampa Bay Buccaneers defeated the New Orleans Saints 16-11. Mandatory Credit: Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Dec 11, 2016; Tampa, FL, USA; New Orleans Saints defensive tackle Nick Fairley (90) against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers during the second half at Raymond James Stadium. Tampa Bay Buccaneers defeated the New Orleans Saints 16-11. Mandatory Credit: Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

But the Saints simply don’t have the cap space to compete with some of the other teams that may have an interest in the former first-round pick. The Saints currently have a little under $30 million available. Compare that to the Browns, who have upwards of $100 million to spend this offseason. Now, granted, that number is a bit ridiculous, and the Browns have plenty of additions to make to their roster for 2017. But the same is true for the Saints. And their money might be better spent on other positions of need, like DE, MLB, OG, and CB.

Per OverTheCap, the top teams in salary cap space are the Browns, the 49ers, and the Patriots. There’s reason to believe all three of those teams would have an interest in adding DT talent.

The Browns have former first-round pick Danny Shelton under contract, but beyond that have next no one worth mentioning. Nile Lawrence-Stample and Trevon Coley are both mediocre, young prospects that bring little to the field. With over $100 million to spend, you can be sure some of that money will go to DT upgrades.

The 49ers also have a former first-round pick at DT in DeForest Buckner. The Niners have played 3-4 in recent years, but a shakeup in their front office could bring any number of changes to that setup. Besides Buckner, the 49ers have only one interior defensive lineman in Alex Balducci. And they spent all of 2016 trying to convert Balducci to an offensive lineman. That’s a bare cupboard. There’s no telling what sort of defense they’ll look to develop under HC Kyle Shanahan, but whether they play 3-4 or 4-3 they’re going to need help along that interior.

The Super Bowl Champion Patriots, meanwhile, are set to lose one of their most productive DTs in Alan Branch to free agency. And at 32, there’s a good chance Belichick will let Branch walk. That leaves Malcom Brown as the only competent DT on their roster. And the Patriots have reportedly had interest in Fairley in the past. While New Orleans has its own advantages for Fairley, there’s no denying the allure of playing for Belichick and that Patriots dynasty.

Beyond those three, a number of teams with more cap space than the Saints may be interested in upgrades at DT. That includes the Raiders, Bengals, Bears and the Cardinals. Even the Buccaneers could look to inject some youth in their aging DT group.

That’s not the mention the 3-4 teams that need help on the inside, including the Titans and the Redskins. Fairley doesn’t fit as a NT, nor really as a 3-4 DE. But if either of these teams sees something, they might make the move.

And Nick Fairley is one of the best prospects among this DT free agent class.

WalterFootball has Fairley ranked only as the ninth best prospect among the class. But when you look closely at the teams with needs, Fairley ranks much higher.

First of all, Ron Rivera said that the Panthers plan to tag DT Kawann Short. He’s considered the best prospect in the class, and that takes him off the market.

Next in line is Calais Campbell, who had a very solid year in Arizona but is 31 and is nearing the end of his career. For most teams Campbell will be a better prospect than Fairley, no doubt. But beyond Campbell, there’s not much more to see.

Brandon Williams, Jonathan Hankins, and Dontari Poe, ranked 3rd, 5th, and 6th respectively on this list, are all NTs. Chris Baker, the 4th ranked prospect, is more of a DE than a DT, and he turns 30 this year. Dominique Easley is a good player but comes with character concerns that forced the Patriots to cut him at the beginning of the year. And Bennie Logan played well in earlier seasons, but very poorly in 2016.

Among the whole class, Nick Fairley has both the most sacks and the most quarterback hits. He’s got the forth-most tackles. And he only just turned 29.

If you think teams will worry about Fairley’s consistency and his commitment to the game, you’re wrong. Yes, Fairley struggled with his weight in earlier years. But his repeated pursuit of “prove-it” deals demonstrates that he’s ready to work for his money. And his emergence as a disruptive force in New Orleans was no fluke. Saints fans know it; you can be sure the rest of the league does too.

If Fairley is pursued as a top-tier DT, he’s set to make upwards of $9 million a year.

The only real knock on Fairley is his age. But compared to the other top prospects at DT in this free agent class, Fairley is one of the youngest. And with teams like the Browns and the Patriots with so much room to make big signings, you can be sure someone will make a run at Fairley. If anyone falls in love with how well Fairley gets after the quarterback, his contract could go as high as $11 or $12 million a year.

And even if Fairley’s contract caps out at, say, $8 million, do the Saints have the flexibility to keep him?

With only $29 million in available cap and needs all along their defense and at OG, the Saints have plenty of areas to address before the go after a DT. A respectable guard will earn somewhere in the ballpark of $7 million, and that’s a need for the Saints. As is DE, where a top-tier free agent will make upwards of $10 million easily. Many media outlets are calling for the Saints to also pursue a top-tier CB talent. I don’t think they need to go after the upper echelon at CB, but there’s no question that they need to add some solid depth to protect the unit from injuries. And then there’s MLB, where a limited market could shoot prices up.

All considered, pursuing a DT may be a bit of a luxury for the Saints. They have Sheldon Rankins. They have Tyeler Davison. And project-player David Onyemata showed huge upside in his first year in New Orleans. Yes, they could use some more depth at the position, especially behind Davison. But $10 million would be luxury spending.

That’s not to say that the Saints shouldn’t resign Fairley. If they can add a solid DE and retain Fairley, they’d have a formidable defensive line. Not to mention whoever they add in the draft, where they’ll surely pursue a pressure player. But I don’t want them to break the bank. Make low-risk moves and sign depth. Pursue a top-tier talent at DE. That’s the fastest way to turn this defense around.

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