Saints Free Agency Profile: Defensive Line


The New Orleans Saints defense has been one of the worst units in the NFL over four of the last five seasons. However, 2016 did show a glimmer of hope for a brighter future.

The New Orleans Saints’ defensive youth movement that started in 2015 continued to take shape for defensive coordinator Dennis Allen. After a promising preseason the defense was ravaged by injuries, particularly at the cornerback position. This exposed a lack of depth, and coupled with lack of consistent pass rush resulted in Allen’s defense finishing dead last against the pass.

Still, there were times that the New Orleans defense actually outperformed it’s more ballyhoo’d offense.  They actually held opponents to less than 25points 8 times in 2016, but amazingly, the team only won 3 of those contests.

Who Dat Dish will continue our series of free agency profiles and off season priorities for the Saints by each position. Today, we will have a look at the New Orleans defensive line. The line looked at times to be a unit of strength for this team in the (hopefully) not too distant future. The group played better against the run then it had in years, and even showed some pass rushing potential. We will look over the D-linemen on the New Orleans roster, in-house free agents, potential targets with a buyer beware warning, and see how much of a priority this position needs to be addressed as the Saints prepare for 2017.


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Cam Jordan is the Saints best defensive linemen, one of it’s 2 or 3 best players, and among the most underrated defenders in the league.

Cam finished the year with 40 tackles and 7.5 sacks. Not his best year statistically, but often played his best football.  The 27yr old is just coming into his prime, and will be a fixture at defensive end for seasons to come.

Rookie defensive tackle Sheldon Rankins showed exactly why the Saints drafted him 12th overall last may.

After missing the first seven games due to a broken leg suffered in the preseason, Rankins teamed with Jordan to give the Saints a lethal inside/outside punch. The 22yr old Rankins showed terrific strength and athletic ability, providing an inside defensive push that stymied opponents over the second half of the season. He looks like a future all-pro fixture.

Tyeler Davison gave the Saints good depth at defensive tackle.

The second-year pro still has a lot to learn, but is a good run defender with great strength at the point of attack. If he develops as a pass rusher, Davison would serve as a solid starter if necessary.

David Onyemata is another project player on the Saints defensive line.

New Orleans traded up to draft Onyemata out of Manitoba University in Canada in the 4th round of the 2016 draft. The pick was a head scratcher to most, considering that the Nigerian native didn’t even play football until college. One look at Onyemata on the practice field quickly showed why coach Sean Payton was so enamored with the 24yr old product. He earned more playing time as the season progressed, and although still raw, Onyemata showed he has the potential to be a significant contributor to this Saints defense.

Obum Gwacham and Kasim Edebali are young players whom the Saints were counting on to bring outside pressure opposite Cam Jordan in 2016.

Both had shown previous potential to do so, yet had significant regression in play. Gwacham’s season ended very early due to injury, but his struggles in the preseason caused some to think that he may not even make the team. Edebali struggled a bit with injury as well, but the 3yr veteran was mostly a non-factor. Neither player is a lock to make this roster in 2017.

Second-year pass rusher Hau’oli Kikaha was counted on to make a big impact in 2016 after a promising rookie campaign, but never saw the field.

Kikaha suffered a torn ACL in the team’s May mini-camp, his third such injury. A healthy Kikaha may provide the pass rush presence opposite Jordan that the team desperately needs. But health is an obvious question.


Nick Fairley, DT (age 29)

Fairley is the biggest name the Saints have as an unrestricted free agent. New Orleans signed him to a one-year contract this past off season. Fairley responded with his best year as a pro. He showed the ability that caused the Detroit Lions to make him the 13th overall selection in the 2011 draft. Fairley’s 6.5 sacks and 29 tackles were both career bests. He is expected to be a highly sought after free agent. The hope is that the Saints will lock him up to a contract before he hits the open market.

Darryl Tapp, DE (age 32)

Tapp was a late edition to the Saints roster just before the start of the 2016 season. The 10yr veteran provided decent spot play for New Orleans, and surpassed the expectations of most. He is expected to test the market, but don’t count out his return to add depth.

Paul Kruger, DE (age 30)

Kruger came to the Saints last preseason with a history of torturing opposing quarterbacks. The 8yr veteran provided anything but, contributing only 1.5 QB takedowns, unable to hold the edge against the run, and often doing a great impression of the INVISIBLE MAN. It would be a shock if he were back in a Saints uniform.


Sylvester Williams, DT (age 28-Broncos)

Williams is a former first-round pick in 2013 (28th overall) by one of the better defenses in the league. Williams is a solid run defender with limited pass rush ability, evidenced by his 5.5 career sacks.  The Denver defense is centered around their linebacking corps, so Williams’ role was often to take up blockers and hold the point of attack. Williams should not be paid as a top end free agent, but may be worth a look. Especially if New Orleans cannot resign Fairley.

Brandon Williams, DT (age 27-Ravens)

Williams is a giant of a man (6’1 335lbs) who anchors a good Ravens defense in the middle. A very good run defender who commands double teams; his presence would free up linebackers to roam freely. This would be a nice sign, whether or not the Saints retain Fairley.

Chris Baker, DE/DT (age 29-Redskins)

Baker played primarily defensive end for Washington, but has the ability to move inside to tackle. He played on a Redskins defense that faded badly down the stretch. But he may benefit from a change of scenery if allowed to hit the open market.


Melvin Ingram, EDGE (age 27-Chargers)

Ingram, like any big name free agent, could very well be franchise tagged by the now-Los Angeles Chargers. Regardless, he will be expecting an elite pass rusher type of contract. After being drafted 18th overall out of South Carolina in 2012, Ingram managed only 6 sacks in his first 3 seasons. He did rebound nicely with 18.5 sacks over the last two years. At 261lbs, Ingram is a bit of a “tweener”. He lacks the run stopping ability necessary for an every down 4-3 defensive end. And he isn’t well rounded enough to be an every-down linebacker.

Elite Names….with Elite Money??

Defensive ends Jabaal Sheard (Patriots), Jason Pierre-Paul (Giants), along with defensive tackles Kawann Short (Panthers) and Dontari Poe (Chiefs) will be the most sought after free agent names at their positions. If, of course, their respective teams do not lock them up before March 9th. All four are under the age of 29. And all have produced in a big way during the bulk of their careers. The Saints will have more room under the cap this year than they’ve had in recent seasons. The question becomes: Do they wish to use it on a marquee name or two in free agency?  Or spread it out among lesser names, thereby being able to fill out their roster better?


Nick Fairley is the biggest free agent question that the Saints need to address on the roster. If they manage to sign him to a multi-year contract, then it is extremely unlikely that we will see them make any attempt at a big name from another team. Should Fairley depart, then New Orleans once again has much larger issues to address along the defensive line.

As we’ve pointed out, there are a number of interesting solutions that should be available in free agency to bolster what could be a very productive front four. Cam Jordan and Sheldon Rankins are both extremely talented, and Hau’oli Kikaha showed very good potential as a rookie in 2015. But they need help. An edge rusher opposite Jordan is one of the Saints biggest needs, perhaps the BIGGEST one. Expect New Orleans to address that area in the draft. The 2017 rookie class looks to be deep in skilled pass rushers. The Saints will almost certainly add new players to their defensive line via free agency as well.

Next: 1-on-1 with WR Amara Darboh


Next, Who Dat Dish will look over the Saints linebacking corps.