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What would it take for the New Orleans Saints to lock up Nick Fairley?

Looking ahead to free agency, the Saints have one big player that is arguably their top priority to re-sign.

Denver Broncos v New Orleans Saints Photo by Wesley Hitt/Getty Images

The New Orleans Saints will have plenty of decisions on their hands in 2017, but perhaps no greater one exists than what to do with defensive tackle Nick Fairley. The team rolled the dice on the ex-Rams and Lions defender despite some heavy criticism that followed. However, Fairley was out to prove himself and silence his critics, and has done a formidable job for Dennis Allen in 2016.

The Gulf Coast native will turn 29 in January, and is sure to draw a lot of interest on the open market if it gets to that point. So, what would it take for the Saints to lock up Fairley to a long-term deal?

For starters, let’s take a look at the Top 15 2017 cap hits for prominent defensive tackles in the NFL. You’ll notice 16 players, which is because Star Lotulelei and Sharrif Floyd have identical cap hits.

2017 Defensive Tackle Salary Cap Hits

Player Team Age Cap Hit Games Tackles Sacks
Player Team Age Cap Hit Games Tackles Sacks
Ndamukong Suh Dolphins 29 $19,100,000 13 57 5.0
Marcell Dareus Bills 26 $16,400,000 5 27 3.5
Malik Jackson Jaguars 26 $15,500,000 13 27 4.5
Gerald McCoy Buccaneers 28 $13,750,000 12 26 7.0
Michael Brockers Rams 25 $11,000,000 11 14 0.0
Damon Harrison Jets 28 $10,600,000 13 77 1.5
Geno Atkins Bengals 28 $10,600,000 13 25 6.5
Tyrone Crawford Cowboys 27 $10,350,000 13 26 4.5
Corey Liuget Chargers 26 $9,500,000 13 30 0.0
Fletcher Cox Eagles 26 $9,400,000 13 35 5.5
Kyle Williams Bills 33 $8,300,000 12 55 3.0
Haloti Ngata Lions 32 $7,750,000 10 17 1.5
Arthur Jones Colts 30 $7,350,000 8 30 0.0
Linval Joseph Vikings 28 $6,850,000 13 55 3.0
Star Lotulelei Panthers 26 $6,757,000 13 19 4.0
Sharrif Floyd Vikings 25 $6,757,000 1 0 0.0
2017 Defensive Tackle Salary Cap Hits John Hendrix

Of the highest paid defense tackles heading 2017, only the BengalsGeno Atkins and the Bucs’ Gerald McCoy have more sacks than Fairley, while he’s currently tied with Fletcher Cox. The average cap hit from the Top 15 defensive lineman would be $10.88 million for 2017. Flirting with a franchise tag for Fairley would be around $14 million, and it would essentially cripple the team’s salary cap. Naturally, it’s not a death sentence, but it’s not ideal either.

How Fairley’s original deal with the Saints works is that the team spread his $2.235 million signing bonus over three years, with the $745,000 cap hits from 2016-2018. His contract will void in February 2017 if he’s on the roster, and the Saints will absorb $1.49 million in dead money as a result.

Premium defensive tackles in today’s NFL are hard to come by, and the Saints defense has finally built a legitimate interior with a combination of Fairley, Sheldon Rankins, Tyeler Davison, and David Onyemata. Last season, the Saints were surrendering 129.8 yards per game on the ground. However, they’ve improved to 12th in the NFL by allowing just 98.4 rushing yards per game this season. Yes, there are three games left to play, but the improvement speaks volumes to why you need a solid interior line.

Saints rushing yards/game allowed by season in the Sean Payton Era

  • 2015 - 129.8 (31st)
  • 2014 - 132.8 (29th)
  • 2013 - 111.6 (19th)
  • 2012 - 147.6 (32nd)
  • 2011 - 108.6 (12th)
  • 2010 - 112.3 (16th)
  • 2009 - 122.2 (21st)
  • 2008 - 117.8 (17th)
  • 2007 - 102.9 (13th)
  • 2006 - 128.9 (23rd)

The 2016 defense could become the first squad in the millennium to turn in under 100 yards/game, and there’s no doubt the combination of work put in by all players and coaches is where you tip your hat to.

So, what would you pay Nick Fairley? If we look at the two biggest contracts handed out during last year’s free agency (which really benefits Fairley), then we gain a little more insight. Malik Jackson raked in a 6-year, $90 million deal from the Jaguars, and Damon Harrison earned a 5-year, $46.25 million contract from the Giants. Jackson received a $10 million signing bonus, and was guaranteed just under 50 percent of his deal at $42 million. Harrison was given an $8 million signing bonus, and guaranteed a little over 50 percent of his deal at $24 million.

An early look at defensive tackles available heading into 2017, Fairley will be joined by big names like Vince Wilfork, Domata Peko, Dontari Poe, Tyrunn Walker, Kawann Short, Tyson Alualu, and Jonathan Hankins, to name a few.

No doubt, there’s a sweet spot for Fairley and the Saints. If I were in the seat of general manager Mickey Loomis, which has obviously become very heated this season with fans’ frustration, you’re going to have dish out at least $8-10 million per year for Fairley to make him interested, but getting him in the Top 5 might be the easiest way to prevent him from hitting the open market. Giving him a 3 or 4-year deal might make the most sense, and he’s absolutely earned it.