The New Orleans Saints have built one of the NFL's finest defenses because of their powerful middle. Much of the credit, and rightly so, for the rise of the New Orleans defense into the league's elite has gone to the edge rushers, defensive backfield, and linebacker Demario Davis. Sometimes lost in the praise was the performance of the defense's interior players, who often tied up blockers to free up the team's other defensive playmakers.
The Saints had the NFL's deepest rotation of talent at defensive tackle. They were a key to the Saints giving up the league's second-fewest rushing touchdowns and rank 4th in run defense, the third straight year with a top-five ranking in that category. The position was responsible for 22 of the team’s 81 tackles for loss and often stonewalled inside rushes at the point of attack if they didn't make a play in the backfield.
The defensive tackles also had an underrated effect on the pass rush. They had nine sacks as a unit, but combined for 32 QB hits and consistently pushed the inside pocket back into opposing quarterbacks. Let’s have a closer look at how this unit performed this season as we continue our 2020 position grades.
An overlooked star on the defensive line this season was fifth-year DT David Onyemata. Signed to a 3-Yr contract extension during the offseason, the 4th round pick from the 2016 draft lived up to his new deal and then some, turning in a performance that should have earned him a Pro Bowl bid. He was one of the Saints' most consistent defenders this season.
Onyemata had career-high totals with 6.5 sacks, 10 tackles for loss, 16 QB hits, and 24 pressures. Once considered a raw athletic project as a rookie, Onyemata has developed into an every-down defender equally effective against the run and pass. He commands consistent double-team blocking and has the skill set to defeat multiple blockers to create interior disruption.
New Orleans used the 12th overall choice in the 2016 draft to select DT Sheldon Rankins, the same year they drafted Onyemata. Rankins has been one of the league's most disruptive tackles when healthy but has struggled with injuries throughout his career. He injured his Achilles in a 2019 Divisional Playoff win over Philadelphia that caused him to miss the first month of the 2019 season but has still missed nine of the last 22 contests with various injuries.
Rankins had a quiet year statistically in 2020, finishing with 2.5 sacks, 11 QB hits, 15 pressures, and five tackles for loss. An important contributor to the team's defensive success when healthy, Rankins is an unrestricted free agent. He is expected to get a lot of interest on the market and possibly too expensive to bring back in 2021.
One of this team's most underrated additions of the last few years was the free-agent signing of DT Malcom Brown in 2019. One of the NFL's best run defenders, Brown is a vital part of shutting down opposing rushing attacks. He may not stand out statistically, he had one sack with 3 pressures and 3 tackles for loss, but ties up blockers effectively and gets a terrific interior push.
Brown has a high salary cap hit in 2021, making him a potential candidate to be released unless he restructures. The importance of Brown to this defense was highlighted when he missed three games with a shoulder injury last season. New Orleans gave up their three highest rushing totals of the year in those three outings.
One reason the Saints can withstand injuries to players like Rankins and Brown is because of their outstanding depth at the position. That depth was created by undrafted talents like Shy Tuttle and Malcolm Roach. Tuttle, in his second year after making an impression as an undrafted rookie from Tennessee, appeared in 15 games and played more defensive snaps. He didn't have a sack, but had 3 pressures, 2 tackles for loss, and played better-run defense.
Roach made the team as an undrafted rookie from Texas, contributing 4 pressures, 2 QB hits, and 2 tackles for loss in nine games. Both Roach and Tuttle have shown excellent potential as pass rushers and provide outstanding depth. With questions surrounding the unit this offseason, Tuttle and Roach could both play even bigger roles next year.
The status of Rankins and Brown this offseason bear close watching, but the New Orleans defensive tackles were a crucial part of the defense's success in 2020. Excellent depth allowed for a quality rotation to keep the unit fresh late in games and helped the squad dominate the point of attack against the run and collapse the pocket as pass rushers.