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Analyzing the Saints’ elite defense heading into free agency

(Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images)
(Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images) /
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(Photo by Wesley Hitt/Getty Images)
(Photo by Wesley Hitt/Getty Images) /

Interior Defensive Line

The Saints built a very strong interior defensive line rotation next year, but they may be much thinner up front next year.

As they navigate their salary-cap situation, it is likely that they have to cut veteran Malcolm Brown to save about $5 million, while former first-round pick Sheldon Rankins is likely to depart as a free agent.

However, that doesn’t mean they will have a glaring hole on the defensive line.

In fact, they remain quite strong in that area. It was somewhat confusing when New Orleans decided to sign David Onyemata to a three-year, $27 million deal last offseason, but he emerged as one of the best interior defenders last season:

With 24 pressures and nine quarterback knockdowns, career-high totals, Onyemata was a menace from the interior. He was the team’s main source of interior pass rush, and although he likely will have to play more snaps next season, hopefully, that won’t cut into his efficiency too much.

Yet, having depth on the defensive line has proven to be a way for teams to have success without investing much at the position, and right now, the rest of New Orleans’ options consist of Shy Tuttle and Malcolm Roach.

Both are former undrafted free agents, and with Tuttle falling out of favor this season and Roach more of an undersized rotational piece, I could see the team looking to add interior defenders. In fact, they have been consistently linked to players at the position in the draft process.

In free agency, there is a multitude of veteran options they could choose from at a cheap price. Maliek Collins would be an interesting bounce-back candidate after a down season with the Raiders, and the same goes for former Brown Larry Ogunjobi.

As a rotational pass rusher to replace what Rankins brought them, Collins, DeMarcus Walker, and Mario Edwards Jr. should all be rather affordable. As more of a traditional run-stopper, DJ Jones, Mike Pennel, Xavier Williams, and Austin Johnson are among the several players available who fit that prototype.

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In terms of the draft, this isn’t the strongest interior defensive line case, but there is some depth. New Orleans has been linked to Washington interior defender Levi Owuzurike, and he would be strong value in the second round given his well-rounded abilities.

However, I’d prefer if the Saints waited potentially until the third day of the draft to address the position. From a production standpoint, Louisiana Tech’s Milton Williams, Georgia’s Malik Herring, Colorado’s Mustafa Johnson, and Oregon’s Jordon Scott all will be available at the end of the draft and are likely undervalued.

Heck, Forrest Merrill (Arkansas State) and Dion Novill (North Texas) are two small-school nose tackles who can defend the run and probably will be available to sign after the draft.

In the right scenario, Florida State’s Marvin Wilson could be a strong bounce-back candidate (round 3?), while Alabama’s Christian Barmore’s efficiency in college would actually make him strong value if available with the 28th overall pick, even if he plays a lesser-valuable position.

The Saints have their high-end interior defender in Onyemata, but it is safe to say that they will need to depth. Having strong defensive linemen may not make or break a team, but they do allow a team to use less resources to defend the run, which is critical to defending explosive passes.

I think that taking chances on bounce-back free agents and looking at the end of the draft/undrafted free agency may be the way to go, but keep an eye on Barmore, who represents a somewhat rare chance to get surplus value from a player at this position in the first round.