The New Orleans Saints opened their 2017 training camp last week, to the delight of many. Canal Street Chronicles continues previewing the Saints positions across the roster. This week, CSC will look over the team's defensive position groups.
Let's start first at the position group that may have the Biggest hole to fill:
(*) denotes rookie
Current camp roster: Sheldon Rankins, David Onyemata, Tyeler Davison, Justin Zimmer, Tony McDaniel, Ashaad Mabry, Devaroe Lawrence*
Offseason Additions: Tony McDaniel (free agent)
Offseason Losses: Nick Fairley (health)
A defensive strength turned into a giant question mark in what seemed like the blink of an eye. Defensive tackle Nick Fairley was one of the defensive bright spots in 2016 for New Orleans, after signing a one-year contract during the previous offseason. He was a 16 game starter for the first time in his career, responding with a career-high 6.5 sacks and generally becoming the disruptor that the Detroit Lions originally drafted him to be in 2011.
Fairley turned his success into a four-year contract extension, and Saints fans were excited at the endless possibilities for a player that seemed to be in his prime. All those hopes were dashed late this spring, when it was revealed that Fairley had a potentially life threatening heart condition. After multiple medical examinations, the Saints placed Fairley on injured reserve, ending his season, as his career is in jeopardy.
Sheldon Rankins missed the first half of his rookie season with a broken leg suffered in training camp. When he returned, he quickly showed why the Saints made him the 12th overall selection in the 1st round of the 2016 draft. Rankins picked up 4 sacks and a forced fumble in only nine games of action, and by the end of the season was playing at a Pro Bowl level. Rankins has the ability to take over a game and dominate the offensive line from his inside position.
Fellow 2016 rookie David Onyemata, a 4th round pick, was expected to see little action in what many thought would be a "red shirt" rookie season. The native of Nigeria that played his college ball in Canada surprised many by seeing action in all 16 games and working his way into the defensive line rotation by season's end. Onyemata still has a lot to learn about professional football, but he's an athletic prospect who has already shown the potential to be a "steal" from last year's draft. Tyeler Davison started 15 games last year for New Orleans, his second year in the league. Davison may not have the athletic ability possessed by Onyemata or Rankins, but has tremendous upper body strength and a tenacity on the field that is unmatched. He is a solid run defender still improving his pass rush abilities.
The Saints signed former Seahawks starter Tony McDaniel early this summer to provide additional depth at defensive tackle. The 12-year veteran has seen action with five different teams over his career, but was an effective starter for 40 games in 3 seasons with Seattle, one of the better defenses in the league. Justin Zimmer finished 2016 on the Saints practice squad after spending the majority of his rookie season inactive with the Buffalo Bills. The former standout at Ferris State impressed many observers in Saints OTAs with his strength and explosive first move inside. He seems to be an under the radar candidate to carve out a spot on the roster. Devaroe Lawrence showed some nice potential while at Auburn, but starts Saints camp on the non-football injury list, and seems an unlikely bet to make the team's roster.
Outlook: The loss of a talented player like Fairley cannot be overlooked. He seemed to be finally coming into his own, and looked to be a good fit in coordinator Dennis Allen's defensive scheme. Our thoughts and prayers continue to be with Nick on a speedy recovery to good health.
David Onyemata has been lining up with Rankins during 1st team reps during the first week of camp. Early reviews are very good, as Onyemata looks like he will be a major factor in this year's defense. Rankins could very well be an All-Pro in the making. He has all the tools of a special player, and his play down the stretch last season may have only scratched the surface of what he can really do. Davison has been quiet at the start of camp, but has proven himself to be a dependable player that is still improving.
Zimmer seems hungry, like the type of player that is going to do whatever it takes to make a play. He'll fight it out with veteran McDaniel for a spot in the tackle rotation. McDaniel has been a contributor for some outstanding defenses, and looks to prove that he still has some good football left. There is a possibility that the Saints bring in another veteran here, especially once looking at who's available after the first cutdown day in August. Despite the loss of Fairley, New Orleans does have some nice talent at defensive tackle, and looks for the position to be a disruptive force in 2017.