Nick Fairley is one player the New Orleans Saints could ill afford to lose.

On a team deprived of pass-rushing talent, Fairley placed second on the roster in sacks last season with 6.5. Even with that production, the Saints still finished 27th in the league with just 30 as a unit.

Fairley’s contributions in his first year in New Orleans were so vital that he earned a four-year, $28-million contract in the offseason.

However, due to a heart condition and health concerns surrounding it, the Saints placed Fairley on the reserve/non-football illness list on Monday, ending his 2017 season before it started.

His absence will leave a 308-pound hole in the middle of the Saints’ defense, one that won’t easily be filled. But as the team and player work out the financial ramifications of his condition, there are ways the Saints can try to replace his production on the field.

In-house

Assuredly, the Saints will first look to the talent already on their roster to try and fill the void. Under those circumstances, Sheldon Rankins’ development will be expedited.

The 12th overall pick a year ago got into just nine games in his rookie season, but racked up four sacks across his last seven games. The 23-year-old will likely get the first crack at replacing Fairley in the lineup.

Rankins alone shouldn’t be expected to replace Fairley entirely, however. Veteran signee Tony McDaniel will be asked to take on a bigger role, while increased responsibility will be handed to youngsters Tyeler Davison and David Onyemata.

It will be a tall task, but if the Saints eschew outside help, they do have options in their building.

Free agents

Realistic options are also available on the free-agent market.

Among the biggest names and biggest defensive tackles is Dan Williams. The former Oakland Raider was cut in April after a subpar 2016 season. He battled weight problems during training camp and was demoted to begin the year, but remains a talented player at the age of 30.

However, Williams’ expertise is stuffing the run, so he wouldn’t so much replace Fairley’s pass-rush production, but would at least fill his spot in the starting lineup.

The free agent most adept at getting to the quarterback is probably Jared Odrick, who’s also coming off of a down year. Odrick plays on the outside, but he would be a welcome addition to help out Cameron Jordan and Alex Okafor.

Trades

The quickest way to replace Fairley’s production would be to mine the rosters of teams in rebuilding mode. Since free-agent dollars aren’t necessarily flowing in New Orleans, a trade could be the more viable option.

The New York Jets represent the most ideal trade partner, as they’ve made it clear they’re willing to tank for a top draft pick and own one of the most talented defensive lines in football.

Leonard Williams is likely off limits, while Steve McClendon represents an expensive second option.

The San Francisco 49ers are also a team building from the ground up, and may be willing to part with a player who wasn’t selected by the current regime. DeForest Buckner was the seventh pick of the 2016 draft and racked up six sacks in his rookie season.

If John Lynch and Kyle Shanahan would rather build with their own personnel, they may be interested in accumulating more assets from the Saints. New Orleans sent receiver Brandin Cooks to the New England Patriots for a package of picks, and could use that model in a deal for Buckner.

Fairley was a pleasant surprise his first season in New Orleans. Without him, the Saints will need to get creative to rush the passer in a division that boasts the likes of Cam Newton, Matt Ryan, and Jameis Winston.

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