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New Orleans Saints position outlook: Defensive tackle needs Nick Fairley in 2017

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The black and gold may have had their best interior line since 2011, and it wasn’t by chance.

NFL: Los Angeles Rams at New Orleans Saints Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sports

The 2016 New Orleans Saints turned in their best statistical performance under Sean Payton by allowing just 101.6 rushing yards per game on defense. It was good enough for 14th in the NFL, rising from 31st in 2015. For perspective, the prior four seasons (2012-2015) saw the defense surrender an average of 130.5 yards/game on the ground. Clearly, there were some big players for the Saints on their interior line that helped fix a huge problem area.

Our position outlook series continues for next year’s Saints by finishing up our look at the ‘beef in the middle’. The defensive ends were previously covered. Free agents, free agent targets, players set to return (including practice squad), and some potential draft options are all considered.

What the Saints are working with

  • Sheldon Rankins, DT: The team’s 12th overall pick in the draft overcame a disappointing broken fibula during mid-August to play in nine games for the Saints. His presence was felt immediately, and the rookie was able to total 20 tackles and 4.0 sacks for Dennis Allen’s defense. Rankins was a very good pickup for the Saints, and the best part about his outlook is that he isn’t happy. Rankins wants to be dominant in 2017, which is exactly what this team needs.
  • Tyeler Davison: When you talk about Davison, you had better mention toughness. The second-year lineman reportedly played through a torn labrum during the season, and had surgery during early January. Davison easily made John Jenkins expendable early on, and ended up playing in 15 games for the Saints. While he may not receive starting reps with Rankins and a potential return of Fairley, Davison is absolutely a stellar part of the interior line in 2017.
  • David Onyemata: The Canadian product certainly adapted to playing the pros in 2016, and played in all 16 games for the team. There were times you clearly saw what potential Onyemata had, being able to blow up plays and making the case for Jenkins take a seat and eventually be released. Of course, Onyemata also had some signs of being a rookie, but overall had a successful campaign. Imagine what a better defensive line coach could do with him.
  • D.J. Pettway: We didn’t get to see much of the Alabama product in 2016, as he opened the season on PUP, was then waived/injured, and spent the season on injured reserve with the club. He was underrated to begin with while being overshadowed by his Crimson Tide teammates A’Shawn Robinson and Jarran Reed, but is at least someone to watch as training camp unfolds.
  • Ashaad Mabry: Mabry has hovered around the Saints since 2015 after being an undrafted rookie addition out of UTSA. His backstory is incredible, leaving Oklahoma State University just a month after school started to be at home with his mother who was suffering from hypertension and diabetes. He hasn’t appeared in any game action, but has managed to be a practice squad guy. Could this be the season he finally turns it up?
  • Justin Zimmer: Zimmer joined the Saints practice squad in mid-December, and was one of the two defensive tackles the team signed to reserve/future deals (Mabry was the other). He was originally an undrafted rookie of the Bills, but that didn’t pan out. Zimmer was heralded as a tremendous small school find with some very athletic gifts, but he’s clearly a ‘wait and see’ player.

Free Agents

  • Nick Fairley: His deal will void in February, which will make him an unrestricted free agent. He shouldn’t be left on the table long, and re-signing Fairley is arguably the most important move the Saints can make during the offseason. Of the free agent defensive tackles, no one is in Fairley’s league. He has 12 more quarterback hits (22) than anyone on the list, and the most sacks (7.0). The biggest question centers around what kind of deal Fairley lands, and there’s obviously a ‘walk away’ price for the Saints. He should be back, and I’d expect him to make at least $8-10 million annually.

Free Agent targets

I’d like to think Nick Fairley stays with the Saints. However, here’s some defensive tackle picks for the sake of the free agency argument.

  • Tyrunn Walker: It always troubled me that the Saints let Walker get away. He had the makings of a stellar 2015 campaign before suffering a broken fibula early in the season, and returned on a one-year deal to the Lions to play in 15 games. He was a better pass rusher in 2016, but was overall underwhelming for Detroit and saw A’Shawn Robinson and Khyri Thornton take snaps from him. A return to New Orleans may do Walker some good if the Saints didn’t look to replace Fairley and roll with Davison and Rankins.
  • Johnathan Hankins: His market is going to be extremely high during the offseason after being an integral part of the Giants defensive makeover. He’s reportedly in the market for Damon Harrison money, but might not get that kind of deal over Fairley. It’ll also be interesting to see what happens with Kawann Short, who is also another target for teams, but might end up getting franchise tagged by the Panthers.
  • Bennie Logan: For starters, Logan has expressed his intention to not test free agency and stay with the Eagles. However, teams will be very interested in a strong run defender like Logan. His stats won’t jump out to anyone, but he’ll absolutely cash in on a new contract. Again, if Fairley is lost, Logan should get a very quick call from the Saints.

Draft possibilities

As a reminder, I look at what the Saints could get in the high, mid, and low value out of the NFL Draft. I’ll reiterate that the need quickly diminishes if Fairley returns.

  • High - Jaleel Johnson: Iowa’s finest burst into the spotlight after a strong 2016, and he keeps impressing. Johnson posted 7.5 sacks and 10 tackles for loss for the Hawkeyes defense, and is apparently super fast. At the Senior Bowl, Johnson turned in a max speed of 19.0 mph, which was faster than some running backs. That’s incredible for a ‘big man’ over the 300-pound mark. Johnson’s projected draft position has been all over the place, but I’d suspect he’ll fall in line with the 2nd and 3rd round.
  • Mid - Eddie Vanderdoes: Injuries (knee and ankle) have hurt the UCLA product, but he’s been making a lot of noise at Senior Bowl practices. Our own Rev Windham spoke highly of his abilities in drills, calling him a ‘frequent disruptor’. He’s certainly a space eater, and would likely be best suited as a 1-technique nose tackle. When healthy, he can be a very big force using some nice jump off the ball.
  • Low - Stevie Tu'ikolovatu: Here’s another player similar to Vanderdoes, but could be a much later find. Tu’ikolovatu is one of John Sigler’s targets from a previous mock draft. He’ll be 26 in June, but there’s a good reason why he didn’t hit until later. He’s extremely physical as a true 1-tech, and the 350-pounder can absolutely power his way through a block to make plays.

In a nutshell

The Saints need an encore performance out of their big men in the middle. It was extremely refreshing to see Fairley and Rankins combine for a host of sacks on defense, which is something the team’s defense has failed to accomplish over the past several years. The depth remains very appealing, and 2017 could see another strong group on the field. Of course, most of it centers around if the black and gold can manage to keep Nick Fairley.