Nick Underhill’s analysis: Nick Fairley could help the Saints in multiple ways, and there’s little risk here _lowres

Advocate staff photo by BILL FEIG New Orleans Saints vs Detroit Lions playoff game. Detroit Lions defensive tackle Nick Fairley (98) congratulates New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees (9) after the second half of an NFL football playoff game in New Orleans, Saturday, Jan. 7, 2012. MAGS OUT / INTERNET OUT/ONLINE OUT/NO SALES/TV OUT/FOREIGN OUT/ LOUISIANA BUSINESS INC./GREATER BATON ROUGE BUSINESS REPORT/225/10/12/IN REGISTER/LBI CUSTOM PUBLICATIONS OUT/

The Saints have been working the free-agent market and salary cap harder than an accountant trying to turn a bill into a return during tax season.

The team entered the market with holes all over the depth chart and minimal money to spend. Somehow, the team continues to create space and plug gaps. Every time it becomes hard to fathom how New Orleans will sign another player, it finds a way to sign another player.

This time, with only $273,000 showing in available funds, the Saints managed to sneak defensive tackle Nick Fairley onto the roster. There are certainly funds being created behind the scenes through restructures and other means that will soon come to light, but to watch this team create space through this shell game is still something to behold.

Whether that something to behold creates something positive, benign or negative in the long run will be revealed in time. But right now, for the 2016 season, it seems that adding Fairley could end up being a positive for the Saints.

It’s no secret that acquiring another three-technique defensive end to play alongside nose tackle John Jenkins was one of New Orleans’ biggest needs. It was so obvious that the team brass did little to hide it when asked the areas it still hoped to address at the NFL’s annual meeting last week.

Fairley plugs that hole after joining the Saints on a one-year deal Monday. And depending on which version of Fairley shows up, he could do a lot more than plug the gap. If not, Fairley should still be better than any other three-technique on the roster, and the Saints are protected by limiting the offer to one season.

There’s no question the former first-round pick out of Auburn can play. He proved that in Detroit by recording 11.5 sacks between the 2012 and 2013 seasons. He injured his knee in 2014 and recorded only one sack over eight games in 2014 and, serving in a reserve role, had a half-sack for the Rams last season.

The big issue with Fairley throughout his career has been finding some shape or form of consistency. Even when he was putting up solid numbers with the Lions, the organization was unsatisfied with how the defensive tackle performed from snap to snap.

“He could play more consistently,” Detroit general manager Martin Mayhew told the Detroit Free Press before the 2014 season. “I mean, he’s got to mature a little bit as a professional, I think. I think that’d be a big step in him playing more consistently.”

But those questions, along with concerns about his weight and ability to stay healthy, are why he was available on a one-year deal. The simple fact is that former first-rounders can’t be picked up on what is essentially a “prove-it” deal when they have nothing to prove.

That could bode well for the Saints if Fairley shows up with a chip on his shoulder, determined to prove all the naysayers wrong as he immediately begins preparing to reach the free-agent market again next offseason.

There’s upside here without much risk. It’s a chance New Orleans had to take.

And if Fairley is the disrupter he has proved capable of being at times throughout his career, that would be a major benefit to the Saints, who have not had that kind of player in the middle of the defensive line in quite a while. Even when he’s not getting to the quarterback himself, Fairley should open things up for other players by creating some interior push.

The other thing it could open up is how the Saints approach the draft. General manager Mickey Loomis likes to use free agency to set up his board and free the team to take the best player available, regardless of position.

By adding Fairley, linebackers Nate Stupar, Craig Robertson and James Laurinaitis and tight end Coby Fleener, as well as retaining some of their own players, the Saints are in position to use their early picks however they see fit.

That doesn’t mean it will preclude New Orleans from taking a defensive tackle or a linebacker. Guard remains a big need. But there is no longer a need to reach for a player at a specific spot. The Saints can now let the board come to them, which is a much better position to be in if the goal is to avoid mistakes.

And now the current members of the Saints are hoping that adding Fairley will help put more sacks on the board.