METAIRIE, La. (AP) Nick Fairley hopes a combination of experience, good health and happiness in his personal life helps him realize his yet-to-be-fulfilled potential as an NFL defensive lineman.
If so, it could provide a considerable boost to a New Orleans Saints defensive front trying to bounce back from a dismal showing in 2015.
Fairley grew up rooting for the Saints in his hometown of Mobile, Alabama, about a two-hour drive east of New Orleans on Interstate 10. He said he gets ''chills'' thinking about playing for the Saints in the Superdome for the first time on Friday night, when the Pittsburgh Steelers visit New Orleans in both clubs' third preseason game.
''Now, being back (in the South), it feels good. I'm close to the family. I'm just in a good state of mind,'' said Fairley, a former Auburn star and 2011 first-round draft pick by Detroit who is now on his third team in three years.
The 6-foot-4, 308-pound Fairley has already demonstrated this preseason that he can disrupt an opponent's ability to run and throw. His performance last Saturday night was among the bright spots in New Orleans' 16-9 exhibition loss at Houston. Fairley sacked projected Texans starting quarterback Brock Osweiler and ended the night with four tackles.
''With Nick, it is all about the consistency,'' Saints defensive coordinator Dennis Allen said after practice this week. ''He has had the athletic ability and the ability to be a playmaker. You saw that in college. But the consistency is where he has to continue to work to improve. But the last week to 10 days, I have seen a lot more consistency with him.''
The recent stretch Allen referenced also overlaps when rookie defensive tackle Sheldon Rankins, whom New Orleans drafted 12th overall, fractured his fibula in his left leg during practice - an injury that could take about two months to heal. Rankins' injury means Fairley, who was expected to rotate into the defensive line as a regular reserve, is now on track to start when the regular season opens against Oakland in the Superdome on Sept. 11.
Fairley said coaches have ''told me I was going to have to take up a little more of the load.''
''I'm ready for it,'' the 28-year-old Fairley added. ''I've just got to get in better shape and keep going.''
Fairley doesn't necessarily have to be fantastic to help the Saints improve. New Orleans ranked 31st in the NFL against the run last season and 27th in sacks per opponent passing attempt.
Fairley was widely considered the most dominant defensive lineman in college in 2010, when he and quarterback Cam Newton led Auburn to a national championship. He set Auburn single-season records with 24 tackles for losses and 11.5 sacks. During the national title game against Oregon's prolific, high-flying offense, Fairley had a sack and forced fumble while registering five tackles - three for losses.
A few months later, the Lions drafted Fairley 13th overall, but he never had more than six sacks in a season with Detroit. He also struggled with injuries at times, as well as off-the-field distractions - namely, a pair of arrests.
Last season, Fairley played for the Rams in a reserve role for 15 games. He was credited with 29 solo or assisted tackles and half a sack.
But his new Saints teammates say his talent remains apparent.
''We know that he's a talent that can change games,'' defensive end Cam Jordan said.
Still, Fairley is quick to acknowledge he hasn't yet become the player he expected to be when he turned pro.
''Far from it,'' Fairley said. ''I've still got a lot of improving to do.''
Notes: The Saints completed their final full practice of training camp on Wednesday. They have a closed walk-through scheduled on Thursday, and after Friday night's game against the Steelers, the Saints will shift to a regular-season schedule for the final week of the preseason. ... Head coach Sean Payton invited two fans attending the last camp practice - a man and a woman - to be honorary captains for the coin toss preceding a place-kicking competition in between Connor Barth and Kai Forbath. Payton said the decision to pick fans as captains was ''spontaneous.'' The two fans then posed with players and coaches for a photo. Payton added that there is no clear leader between the two kickers heading into the final two preseason games. ''We've got to continue in the next two weeks, the next two games, try to put them situations where something jumps out. Both of them are handling it well.''
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