The New Orleans Saints took a chance on defensive tackle Nick Fairley in 2016, and it really paid off. The biggest question as we quickly approach free agency is if the black and gold can keep him. Fairley’s services are certainly appealing after turning in the highest sack total and tackles of his career. Let’s not forget, Fairley played in all 16 games for the first time in his 6-year stint.
Having just turned 29 in January, Fairley is likely looking at his last opportunity to cash in on a big deal. In mid-December, I talked about the earning potential for his market. Realistically, Fairley could earn somewhere between $9-10 million annually. If you average out the top 15 defensive linemen’s salaries in the new season, the average rate is going at $10.88 million. So, it's not unreasonable to get Fairley into this range. Also for those wondering, the Saints would be silly to flirt with a franchise tag at an estimated $14 million.
Here are a few routes the Saints could take if they don’t actually invest in Fairley.
The Giants are going to have their hands full as it is trying to sign many of their own, and Johnathan Hankins is one of them. As strong as the G-Men’s defensive line was last season with the additions of Damon Harrison and Olivier Vernon, they’re in jeopardy of losing Hankins and Jason Pierre-Paul. While they’ve made it clear that both are priority re-signings for the team, Hankins could get some money thrown his way to leave The Big Apple.
Now, Hankins reportedly wants Harrison type money in his new deal, which puts him in the $8-10 million conversation with Nick Farley. Other defensive tackles like Dontari Poe and Brandon Williams will also look to cash in on deals, so the open market will be interesting for all of these guys. Hankins is a strong run stuffing presence, and is a lot younger than Fairley. He could make for a fiercesome tandem with Sheldon Rankins.
The market for Bennie Logan will be there once free agency kicks off, and he has the ability to play in the Saints 4-3 scheme. He’d bring strong run stuffing along with some pass rushing skills in his repertoire. Reports estimate that Logan could be in the $5-6 million range yearly, and the former third-rounder will have no trouble finding someone to pay him for his services.
This approach wouldn’t necessarily involve the Saints tabbing a particular starter next to Sheldon Rankins, but Tyrunn Walker could fit in a rotation with Tyeler Davison and David Onyemata. Coming off an injury season in 2015 coupled with a very underwhelming 2016 campaign in which he had other players dig into his playing time, Walker and the Saints could be a welcomed reunion.
Let me first start by saying I’m not a huge fan of going after restricted free agents. It may have to do with that whole Jason David thing. However, Dominique Easley is one of those players that could be brought in on a smaller low-risk multi-year deal to see what he can contribute. Yes, he’s had an injury history, but was able to go in all 16 games for the Rams last year and finished with the second-highest amount of snaps to Aaron Donald. Easley is intriguing, to say the least - but any offer thrown Easley’s way by the Saints could easily be matched by the Rams with their cap space.
There’s plenty of appealing options to gain in the draft at the end of April, but naturally that’d mean the Saints would have to use a pick to get a player. Some of my favorite players include Iowa’s Jaleel Johnson and UCLA’s Eddie Vanderdoes. LSU’s Davon Godchaux and USC’s Stevie Tu’ikolovatu are also names to remember when it comes down to it.
Going to the draft could solidify the team’s confidence in their three younger stars. After landing Ryan Nielsen as the team’s defensive line coach earlier this month, there’s a lot to love about what he brings to the table for younger prospects and projects. Of course, hoping that Davison and Onyemata will plug in and produce like Fairley did could be wishful thinking for some.
Free agency gets underway on March 9 at 3:00 p.m. CST, and the clock has been ticking on the Saints to get Fairley locked up. While I firmly believe that he belongs on the team, a realistic best guess on his new deal would be a 4-year, $39 million contract with $24 million guaranteed.