METAIRIE, La. (AP) Saints defensive tackle Nick Fairley is coming off one of his best NFL seasons and it might have been his last.
At the very least, he won't be playing for New Orleans in 2017.
General manager Mickey Loomis said Monday that Fairley has been placed on the team's reserve list with a non-football illness designation, meaning the 2016 starter is out for this season.
The 6-foot-4, 308-pound Fairley had a career-best 6+ sacks for the Saints last season, after which he signed a four-year extension worth up to $28 million.
However, symptoms related to an enlarged heart caused Fairley to miss offseason practices and minicamp while he saw specialists to determine whether playing football would be an undue health risk.
Saints coach Sean Payton has said at least one specialist recommended that the 29-year-old Fairley - a former Auburn star and 2011 first-round draft pick by Detroit - give up football. Payton also had mentioned that he wanted to be sure Fairley wouldn't return unless he was confident enough in his health to play to his full potential.
''The most important thing right now in our mind is his well-being,'' Payton said earlier this month, when Fairley's status for this season was still in doubt.
''To play this game, there's a little bit of mental toughness involved, obviously. I want to make sure, if in fact he's playing it, again that he's playing with full confidence that he's healthy to play and that nothing severe would come of him playing.''
Fairley's absence is the second recent blow to a Saints squad trying to break out of a rut of mediocrity that has produced three straight, 7-9, non-playoff seasons. Little more than a week ago, the Saints learned that their highest-paid offensive lineman, left tackle Terron Armstead, needed shoulder surgery that would sideline him four to six months, or at least about half of the regular season.
New Orleans' top remaining interior defensive linemen include Sheldon Rankins, Tyeler Davison and David Onyemata. Rankins was New Orleans' top draft choice in 2016, and Onyemata was selected later in that same draft. Davison was a fifth-rounder in 2015.
During minicamp this month, the Saints also added veteran defensive tackle Tony McDaniel, who started 10 games for Seattle in 2016.
The Saints' move on Monday sidelines Fairley only for 2017. His future beyond that remains unclear. He has been playing his whole NFL career with an enlarged heart, which can be caused by health problems of varying severity.
In addition to his career-high sacks last season, Fairley was credited with nine tackles for losses and 22 quarterback hits.
That was more like the production that was expected of him when he turned pro after helping Auburn's 2010 squad win a national title.
Fairley sometimes struggled to meet expectations during his first five pro seasons. The Lions let him go after four seasons, and he lasted only one season with the Rams, with whom he played in St. Louis in 2015.
In his career, Fairley has played in 77 regular-season games, making 170 solo or assisted tackles - including one safety - and 20+ sacks. He has also defended three passes.
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