First of all let’s be clear on something. The final verdict hasn’t been decided with Nick Fairley’s medical situation yet, and until it is the only thing on Saints fans minds should be his health. However, being honest we are all fans and while I’m sure everyone of us is praying for Nick to be ok for both him and his family’s sake, but we also can’t help ourselves by wondering is there any hope at all for the Saints defense without Fairley. The simplest answer to that question is that yes, there is hope, but it is of the fleeting and thin variety that you can’t count on. The reality is that the Saints defense has only three players who have proven they can be difference makers at the NFL level, and losing any one of Cameron Jordan, Kenny Vacarro, or Nick Fairley is catastrophic to a unit that is barren in the playmaking department.
Before getting into the on the field impact of Fairley’s absence, which is enormous, I don’t think enough attention has been given to what it would do to the Saints locker room. Fairley is a proven veteran, an animated and passionate presence on the sideline, and someone who can be (and hopefully is) a mentor for the two talented animals behind him on the depth chart. Sheldon Rankins has an excellent athletic profile and is similar to Fairley in both position (3-tech) and play style. David Onyemata is a monster of a man who hasn’t really learned how to play the game yet. Fairley can be a tremendous asset for them in the kitchen (reminding them to prepare their bodies like a pro), in the film room, in the locker room, and of course on the field. Losing him WILL hurt the development of our younger players, I’m convinced of it.
Looking on the field Fairley will be remembered by most fans by his 6 1/2 sacks as fantasy football has conditioned most of us to think of only the stat line (this is why some people think Cam Jordan wasn’t a fantastic defensive end last year when the film says very clearly otherwise). What will be missed most by Fairley is his 40+ pressures. He created not only plays for himself, but opportunities for others. That is how you move from being impactful, to being a difference maker and Fairley fits that moniker perfectly.
Fairley was a constant strong presence in the run game, but his ability to penetrate the opposing offensive line and put either himself or his teammates in a position to make a play is something that can’t be replaced. Even if Sheldon Rankins ascends to the level many people believe he can, Onyemata isn’t likely to become Sheldon Rankins. This means you no longer have BOTH Fairley and Rankins on the interior which impacts your already weak pass rush significantly. that means more pressure is on the edges to penetrate and create pressure, and also you need your coverage to hold up another second. It isn’t that the Saints can’t still improve on defense without Nick Fairley, but how much they can improve will be severely limited without the mammoth from Auburn lining up on the interior.