The New Orleans Saints had their best defensive performance since 2013 last season, sparking a return to the playoffs for the first time in four years. One of the reasons for this was stout play from the middle of their defensive line. Today's training camp preview takes a look at a position that didn't show up much on the stat sheet, but was an important part of the team's 2017 success.
Key Losses: none
Key Additions: Jay Bromley (free agent, Giants)
The Saints drafted Sheldon Rankins with the 12th overall selection of the 2016 draft in hopes that he would be the disruptive interior presence that the defense had been missing for years. Rankins had 4 sacks in that rookie season during just 9 games of action, having been slowed by a leg injury suffered in the preseason. Although his sack total decreased to two last season, Rankins was among the team leaders in quarterback hits and pressures. He often commands double teams, allowing teammates more opportunity to make plays. Rankins is quick off the snap, sets a strong base, and is a good defender against the run inside. Injuries at defensive end down the stretch of the year caused coaches to move Rankins outside in some alignments last season, but he showed the athleticism to play capably. That athletic ability was on display during a game at Buffalo, when an acrobatic interception by Rankins helped seal a key road victory.
David Onyemata enters his third NFL season looking like he is transforming from a raw project into a budding star. Taken in the 4th round of the same draft as Rankins in 2016, Onyemata has yet to miss a game, and has become an important part of the team's defensive line rotation. Possessing almost freakish athletic ability for a man of his size (6'4, 300-lbs.), he became a disruptive force down the stretch of last season and into the playoffs. Along with Rankins, Onyemata was used outside in a few packages, but is most effective inside. He pursues plays well, but has the strength to make plays at the point of attack. He has just two career sacks, both in 2017, but is on the list of many as a breakout candidate for the 2018 season.
Tyeler Davison is the elder statesman of the Saints three-headed tackle rotation. A 5th round pick in 2015, the 6'2, 309-lb. Davison is a traditional run-stopper. A tenacious defender and an almost immovable object at times, he doesn't have alot of range as a defender, but possesses good initial quickness off the snap and tremendous strength to overwhelm opposing blockers. Davison won't contribute much as a pass rusher, but has the capability to short-circuit an opponent's inside rushing attack. What he does best is clog the middle, allowing the Saints more athletic defenders the opportunity to make plays along the outside.
Leading into the offseason, Saints coach Sean Payton stated that he wanted his team to add a 'pressure player' within it's front seven. After the team heavily pursued interior linemen Muhammad Wilkerson and Ndamukong Suh unsuccessfully in free agency, many assumed that the coach may not have been fully satisfied with the performance of his interior line play. But New Orleans did not draft any defensive tackles with their seven selections in April, and signed only former Giant reserve Jay Bromley as a free agent. Bromley is a capable run defender that will add veteran depth to a young group. Taylor Stallworth and Henry Mondeaux are both undrafted free agents with intriguing athleticism inside, and certainly worth watching through camp. They join Devaroe Lawrence and Woodrow Hamilton, two big-bodied practice squad players with preseason experience to add competition for interior depth. Mitchell Loewen, a versatile lineman who can play both inside and outside in most alignments, was an unheralded player who won a job with a strong camp performance a year ago. The Saints defensive tackles contributed just 4 of the team's 42 sacks in 2017, two each from Rankins and Onyemata, but improved play from it's interior players helped spark the defense to it's best play in years. Davison is in a contract year in 2018, and the Saints will have to make decisions on the contracts of both Onyemata and Rankins in upcoming seasons. New Orleans did not need big statistical performances from the defensive tackle position a year ago, but may need at least one of them to progress into an elite defender in 2018 to be a top NFL defense.
Who will be the Saints best defensive tackle in 2018?
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