The youth movement on the New Orleans Saints roster is in full effect. Since the hiring of Jeff Ireland to the front office staff, the team has taken a more measured approach to free agency and put emphasis on drafting quality players instead of banking on upside.
In last year’s draft, the Saints selected Davis Tull in the 5th Round – a player who offered both quality performance and significant upside. It may not be completely fair to compare different draft classes, but the Tull choice compared to the Ronald Powell selection in 5th Round in the 2014 Draft marks a complete turnaround in draft philosophy.
Powell was the top NATIONAL recruit of the 2010 class when the Florida Gators snagged him all the way from California. Lackluster play and a career derailed by multiple injuries – including several serious knee injuries – kept Powell from reaching his potential.
The Saints took a flier on him as a fifth-round pick with only hope that he might be able to reach that potential. Two years later, Powell is a free agent in a league desperate for edge players.
Tull, however, was an unheralded player coming out of high school. On National Signing Day, he didn’t even get a phone call. He was a walk-on at the University of Tennessee-Chattanooga, and was on the brink of giving up football altogether.
Naturally, he went on to become the most decorated player in UTC history.
And he never missed a game.
This story from Stephen Hargis of the Chattanooga Times Free Press is an excellent read for those of you interested in Tull’s story.
When the Saints took him in the fifth round of the 2015 draft, many analysts viewed him as a steal. And why wouldn’t they? He was hyper-productive in college, racking up 37 sacks and 59.5 tackles for loss over the course of 48 games.
He was the SoCon Defensive Player of the Year three years in a row. He wasn’t just beating up on lesser competition either. Against the University of Tennessee in 2014, he notched seven tackles, including two tackles for loss and a sack, consistently bringing pressure.
He tore up the combine, showing off his explosion and athleticism with a 42.5-inch vertical and an 11-foot broad jump. At his Pro Day, he ran a 4.57 forty-yard dash. That is exceptional athleticism for a 6-foot-3, 250-pound defender.
When asked who he modeled his game after, he said Clay Matthews. When you compare body types, athleticism, and production, it isn’t hard to see why.
Barry Hirstius of Big Easy Believer made a bolder comparison saying Tull reminded him of All-Time Saints great Pat Swilling.
Hopes were high for Tull at the onset of his professional career.
Unfortunately, those hopes took a gut-shot when Tull was forced to sit out most of training camp due to a shoulder labrum injury – and consequently he was placed on injured reserve, missing his rookie season.
This season, Tull is completely healthy and in line to compete for significant playing time after the ACL injury to Hau’oli Kikaha during OTAs. If minicamps are any sign of the impact Tull can bring to the pass rush, then the Saints may not miss Kikaha as much as they thought.
Putting his explosive first step to use as the “Jack” defensive end on the weakside in Dennis Allen’s scheme, Tull made regular appearances in the backfield.
For Tull to steal snaps away from Kasim Edebali and Obum Gwacham, he is going to have to continue that trend when the pads go on.
Athletically, all three are about on the same level, so it is going be all about technique. For Tull, there will be extra emphasis on technique and hand placement as he has relatively short arms for a down lineman. He is going to have to couple that with his explosive first step to be a consistent threat as a pass rusher.
No one should expect Tull to run away with the job, but there needs to be realistic expectations for him this season. A safe bet would be replicating Kikaha’s production from last year of 52 tackles and four sacks. It’s not likely that he will also replicate the four forced fumbles, but it is within the realm of possibility.
He shouldn’t have much trouble doing that since he won’t have to worry about dropping into coverage while playing off the line of scrimmage – a role that Kikaha was miscast in last year.
If the Saints defense is going to take a step forward this season, there is no question that the pass rush has to improve. Davis Tull will HAVE to step up with Kikaha down. Come July 28th when training camp opens, we will find out if he is ready.