SB Nation recently teamed up with Football Outsiders to have each respective NFL team ask several questions regarding their team. One of the biggest questions facing the New Orleans Saints in 2017 is how the interior defensive line compensates for the loss of Nick Fairley. Andrew Potter weighs in.
The Saints defense, as bad of a rap as they get, did improve in their run defense. With the loss of Nick Fairley, where does the impact fall for players like Sheldon Rankins, David Onyemata, and Tyeler Davison?
The interior defensive line is the area of the defense I have least concern about, even with Fairley out for the year. Fairley was the best of the four players individually, but not by so much that the others can’t replace him. Rankins has already introduced himself to Saints fans and opposing quarterbacks, grabbing four sacks in nine games during his rookie year as a situational interior rusher. He will probably replace Fairley in the starting lineup, providing a greater pass-rush threat but not quite as solid against the run. Davison will retain his starting spot as the nose tackle: a space-eater who absorbs blocks and allows everybody around him a bit more space to make plays. Onyemata fits between the two: more of a pass rusher than Davison, less of a pure pass rusher than Rankins. His snap count will increase sharply (he played just over a third of snaps last year), and he will probably rotate into and out of the lineup for either of the other two situationally. It’s a solid, albeit inexperienced rotation, and when you add the ability of Cameron Jordan to move inside if necessary on passing downs, the interior line should be a relative strength even without its best player.
The problem now is depth. Assuming he stays on the roster, Tony McDaniel can step in at nose tackle if anything happens to Davison, but there isn’t really a ready replacement if Rankins goes down. That may be a factor in the signing of former Titans second-rounder Jason Jones, who is primarily considered a defensive end but can fill a role as a 3-technique tackle.
Nick Fairley accounted for the second-most sacks and QB pressures on the team behind defensive end Cam Jordan. His 722 snaps played was the most among any of the other defensive lineman outside Jordan. The good news is that Tyeler Davison and Sheldon Rankins look to be completely healthy entering this season, while David Onyemata is looking to make a huge leap.
Only time will tell if the Saints miss Fairley, but the options they have for replacing him can’t be overlooked.