Nick Fairley still has something to prove, which could be good for Saints

Nick Fairley isn't a sure thing. But the disruptive defensive tackle comes with relatively low risk and potentially high reward.

That makes him a pretty good fit for a New Orleans Saints team that still has glaring needs on defense and has just about run out of salary-cap space (in order to fit Fairley under the cap, the Saints will have to rework somebody else's contract).

The thing I like best about the Saints signing Fairley to a one-year deal is that finally, three weeks into free agency, they addressed their biggest need of the offseason -- their pass rush. Coach Sean Payton recently listed a pass-rusher and a three-technique tackle as the team's two "musts" this offseason.

When he's at his best, Fairley is a disruptive inside presence who can either get to the quarterback or flush him out of the pocket. The 28-year-old still has the tantalizing upside of a player who was picked 13th overall by the Detroit Lions in 2011 after winning the Lombardi trophy at Auburn and being named the defensive MVP of the BCS National Championship Game.

The problem is, Fairley has never consistently delivered on that potential in four years with the Lions and one with the St. Louis Rams.

He has battled a variety of injuries and weight issues -- the latter of which got him temporarily demoted by the Lions in summer 2014. He has just 14 career sacks and missed 18 games during his first four seasons.

There have been questions about Fairley's motivation at times, especially earlier in his career. There were also some character red flags early on, including separate arrests after his rookie season on charges of DUI and marijuana possession (he was found not guilty on the DUI charge, and the marijuana charges were later dropped).

All of that history made me pause when I heard the Saints were targeting Fairley early in free agency. They have made locker-room culture a huge emphasis after it eroded in 2014, and they took pride in rebuilding around the "right guys" in 2015.

But then again, the Saints might be getting the "right" Nick Fairley at the right time.

By all accounts, Fairley has been on the right path the past two years after hiring a personal chef and getting his weight down. Although he is listed at 6-foot-4, 308 pounds, Fairley said he was down to 281 pounds late last season.

And though he had just one half-sack last season as a rotational backup in the Rams' stacked defensive line, Fairley was widely praised for having an excellent season. The scouting service Pro Football Focus was especially high on him.

Fairley had to sign a one-year "prove it" deal with the Rams last year, and he delivered with a solid season. Now, the Saints appear to be getting him on another one-year "prove it" type of deal as he keeps working toward a bigger, long-term contract down the line.

Also, this isn't a case where the Saints are just combing through the players who are still left on the open market. A source indicated at the beginning of free agency that Fairley was on their radar.

Even more telling was the interest level in Fairley on the open market. Several teams reportedly pursued Fairley, including the New England Patriots, whom he visited last week.

And some of the Saints' top players were openly campaigning for Fairley to join them -- including former Alabama star Mark Ingram, who didn't mind crossing Alabama-Auburn lines to improve his current team.

The Saints still need more pass-rush help, most of which probably will have to come from the draft at this point.

Defensive end should rank first now on New Orleans' priority list, but defensive tackle is still right up there near the top, especially because Fairley signed for just one year. Fairley and starting nose tackle John Jenkins are both scheduled to be free agents after this season.

It remains entirely possible that the Saints will select one of their most popular mock-draft choices in Round 1 (Alabama DT A'Shawn Robinson or Louisville DT Sheldon Rankins). Or they could choose one later in a draft that has been described as very deep at the DT position.

But by signing Fairley, that position goes from a "must" to a want. The Saints will be more free to draft the best available player in that No. 12 spot, which is always their goal.