Brian Allee-Walsh

There’s pressure on Saints’ Nick Fairley to justify rich contract

New Orleans Saints outside linebacker Stephone Anthony (50) and defensive tackle Nick Fairley (90) teamed up to stop Tampa Bay Buccaneers running back Doug Martin (22) last season. According to Fox Sports, Fairley has a heart issue.
New Orleans Saints outside linebacker Stephone Anthony (50) and defensive tackle Nick Fairley (90) teamed up to stop Tampa Bay Buccaneers running back Doug Martin (22) last season. According to Fox Sports, Fairley has a heart issue. AP

I don’t sense opposing quarterbacks are quaking in their cleats but the pass-rush-starved New Orleans Saints defense appears to beefing up its attack.

On Tuesday, the Black and Gold reportedly added free agent Alex Okafor, a 6-foot-4, 261-pound rotational pass rusher who played outside linebacker in Arizona’s 3-4 defense but likely will play end in New Orleans’ 4-3 scheme.

That transaction piggybacks last week’s re-signing of veteran defensive tackle Nick Fairley, a former No. 1 pick in Detroit and fair-to-middling run stuffer/pass rusher who made himself NFL-relevant again last season in New Orleans.

Thus, the Saints’ four-man front now reads, from left, DE Alex Okafor, DT Sheldon Rankins, DT Nick Fairley and DE Cam Jordan. Not exactly murderer’s row, and this lineup is subject to change as GM Mickey Loomis and coach Sean Payton hold five picks in the first 103 slots of the upcoming draft, including Nos. 11 and 32 in the first round.

Now that the day’s business is out of the way, I’d like to go inside the numbers of Fairley’s four-year, $28 million contract that can provide up to $2 million more in incentives.

For starters, it features $14 million in guaranteed money, including an $8 million signing bonus. Overall, $7 million per year sounds reasonable for Fairley in today’s NFL marketplace. He played 723 snaps last season as a rotational player and posted career highs in sacks (6.5) and tackles (43) while playing all 16 games for the first time in his six-year career.

It’s the up-front money for an oft-injured player with a checkered past during his days in Detroit from 2011 through 2015 that throws a red flag up for me.

The Fairley contract certainly pales in comparison to the over-the-top deals struck in years past by former Saints’ pass rushers Charles Grant and Junior Galette, who turned out to be problematic players off the field and salary-cap dead weight after breaking the bank.

On the eve of the 2014 season, the Saints signed Galette to a four-year, $41 million contract extension that featured $23 million in guaranteed money, including $3 million to sign and an additional $12.5 million in roster bonus.

Galette eventually walked away with $17 million of the contract before his abrupt release prior to the 2015 season. Off-field transgressions and the likelihood he would miss much of training camp because of a torn pectoral muscle combined to spell his demise in New Orleans.

Viewed as a rags-to-riches story after signing as an undrafted free agent in 2010, Galette ended his career in New Orleans with 31.5 sacks over four mostly inauspicious seasons.

His departure was reminiscent of another overpaid, underachieving Saints pass rusher who did not return commensurate dividends on a big contract during the Loomis/Payton era.

In April 2007, the Saints signed Grant to a seven-year, maximum $63 million contract that included $20 million in guarantees. Grant, the 25th overall picks in the 2002 draft, had 10 sacks in 2003 and 10 1/2 in 2004 but recorded only 8 1/2 sacks the next two seasons before signing the monster deal.

Grant would post 11 more sacks in his last three seasons in New Orleans from 2007 through ’09, a span marked by injuries and league and legal troubles and ultimately led to his exit in 2010.

I’m eager to see how Fairley, 29, plays and behaves while flush with money and holding a long-term contract after playing the last two seasons under relatively modest one-year deals.

Let’s hope Fairley doesn’t go down the path taken by Galette and Grant.

Brian Allee-Walsh is a longtime Saints reporter based in New Orleans. He can be reached at sports@sunherald.com.

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