When keeping the view strictly on the field, determining that Nick Fairley should be a part of the Saints defensive line moving forward is an easy task.
Multiple sources have said both the team and player would like to stick together. Fairley likes playing in New Orleans, which is close to his hometown of Mobile, Alabama, and grew fond of coach Sean Payton. The organization had no issues with Fairley last season and realizes he was a key component of the defense.
The big issue will be figuring out what Fairley is worth and coming to an agreement that makes sense for all parties involved when his contract voids at the end of the month.
He could be seeking something in the range of $9.5 million. That would put him above Dallas Cowboys defensive tackle Tyrone Crawford, who has an average annual value of $9 million and had 4½ sacks and eight quarterback hits (Fairley had 22), but below San Diego’s Corey Liuget, who has an average annual value of $10.25 million and has recorded three sacks over the past two seasons.
Fairley recorded 6½ sacks last season, during a year in which he spent some time playing on the nose in three-man fronts, and had nearly 50 other pressures. He was, by any account, one of the better defensive tackles in the NFL. What Fairley can be certain of is that the Saints will not likely pay him a contract with an average annual value exceeding the $11 million defensive end Cameron Jordan is currently being paid.
The Saints are projected to have about $30 million in cap space before re-signing their own players, so they will have the financial flexibility to keep Fairley around, if they choose.
New Orleans will enter the offseason looking to find ways to improve its defense. Though the feeling is that the team showed improvement on that side of the ball while fighting through injuries at several key positions, it still finished near the bottom of the league in total defense and could use upgrades at several spots.
But if Fairley is retained, the team could be a defensive end away from having a strong front four. Jordan remains one of the better defensive ends in the league, and the Saints are optimistic that defensive tackles Sheldon Rankins and David Onyemata will continue to improve in their second seasons.
However, even with the optimism, neither of those players were as disruptive as Fairley. Even though he finished with 4½ sacks in nine games, Rankins didn’t have the same kind of pressure numbers as Fairley. Keeping the pieces up front that are working and adding some more talent might be the quickest way to improvement.
Still, this situation will likely be determined by money. Fairley should have a strong market waiting for him if he decides to explore his options. And, if he’s seeking something in the range of $9.5 million, there’s a good chance someone will step up with the money. Relative to what other defensive tackles are making, something in that range isn't unreasonable if he gets someone to pay it.
If all parties are to be believed, and both sides want to continue this relationship, they need to find a number that works.