New Orleans Saints defensive tackle Sheldon Rankins played on par with the most disruptive defensive tackles in the league in 2018. He finished with career high totals in sacks (8), tackles for loss (12), and quarterback hits (15), all second on the team while his 40 tackles nearly doubled his two year career total. The 12th overall pick in the 2016 draft, Rankins showed promise in a rookie season abbreviated by injury, then showed great improvement in his second year before a breakout campaign last season. Unfortunately, Rankins suffered a torn Achilles tendon in the Saints divisional playoff win over the Philadelphia Eagles, an injury that is expected to keep him out of the lineup until midseason or longer. The New Orleans defensive line still has quality players without Rankins; depth and skill that will both be tested until his return, something we look at today as we continue with our training camp previews.
Malcom Brown, Sylvester Williams
Obviously, the key storylines for not just this position but one of the major ones for the entire Saints defense, is the Rankins injury. When will he return? How well will he play when he does? And how well will the Saints defensive tackles, and defensive line in general, play without him? The 25-yr. old Rankins is expected to make a full recovery, bolstering one of the better defensive lines in the league. The 6'2 305-lb. tackle has blossomed into one of the better interior disruptive presences in the NFL against both the run and as a pass rusher. He is able to alter an opponent's game plan, as well as taking some of the opposing focus away from star end Cameron Jordan and the team's other defenders.
Stepping into Rankins' spot will be David Onyemata. Selected in the 4th round of the 2016 draft, the 26-yr. old Onyemata has improved in each of his three NFL seasons. Extremely athletic for such a big man at 6'4 300-lbs., he is learning the nuances of the pro game well and as a result gets caught out of position much less often. A good natural pass rusher, Onyemata had a career high 4.5 sacks last season. That included 3 in a dominant performance against the Dallas Cowboys, but he was often able to hurry opposing quarterbacks throughout the year. Suspended by the league for the season opener due to an offseason arrest, Onyemata's snap count and production expectations are expected to be much higher upon his return. His physical ability has never been in question, but how Onyemata responds to increased expectation and workload could be a key to the Saints defensive performance in 2019.
Taylor Stallworth performed well after making the team as an undrafted rookie last season. The 6'2 305-lb. plays with good leverage and strength inside, also surprising opponents with his agility. The 24-yr. old Stallworth should see an increase in his snap count as well, particularly with the free agent defection of run-stuffer Tyeler Davison.
Stallworth could face some stiff competition for playing time, or perhaps even a roster spot, from a pair of undrafted college players signed this year following the draft. West Virginia's Kenny Bigelow was a former 5-star high school recruit when coming to U.S.C. Though inconsistent, Bigelow would flash good potential from time to time with the Trojans. Unfortunately, two ACL injuries cost him the seasons in 2014 and '16 before finishing out his career with the Mountaineers, where he had a sack and five tackles for loss in 2018. Bigelow has good strength and outstanding burst into the opposing backfield at 6'4 307-lbs., and if his knee problems are in the past has the skills to work his way into the rotation.
Another skilled player with an injury history that caused him to go undrafted is Shy Tuttle from Tennessee. Tuttle missed good portions of his freshman and sophomore years with leg injuries, but saved his best work as a senior for the Volunteers, playing in every contest and finishing with 33 tackles, 3 stops for loss, an interception, and 3 sacks. Quick off the snap, Tuttle uses his 6'3 300-lb. frame well, and possesses good speed once into the backfield or in pursuit.
One under the radar free agent signing that could pay huge dividends for the New Orleans defense is defensive tackle Malcom Brown. The 32nd overall selection by the New England Patriots in 2015, one pick after the Saints selected linebacker Stephone Anthony, Brown was a massive inside presence for the Patriots for four seasons. The 25-yr. old Brown has 8.5 career sacks, has averaged 46 tackles per season, and has 14 career tackles for loss. Though capable of applying pressure on the passer, the 6'2 320-lb. tackle is more of a space eater who occupies multiple blockers and walls up the interior.
The Saints also signed veterans Mario Edwards Jr. and Sylvester Williams as free agents this offseason to bolster their line depth. Edwards, who was the 35th selection in the 2015 draft (2nd round), can play either end or tackle spots at 6'3 280, adding to the versatility of the defensive line. The 30-yr. old Williams was a 1st round draft pick in 2013 by the Denver Broncos, who was a key contributor to their Super Bowl 50 championship defense in 2015. Still possessing a quick first step of the snap, the 6'2 328-lb. Williams has struggled with weight issues and leverage at the point of attack, but has championship experience like Brown and still capable of providing quality rotational snaps.
The Saints defense finished second in the league against the run in 2018, and surrendered just 3.6 yards per rush attempt. Much of the reason for this was the standout play of Rankins and the rest of the line up front able to hold up and make plays at the point of attack and allow the Saints other defenders to make plays. The signing of Brown is expected bolster the interior, but the Saints must be able to get interior penetration without Rankins for at least half the year. A Super Bowl championship might very well depend on if they can do exactly that until his return, as well as the level of Rankins play once he is back in the lineup.