METAIRIE, La. - Two turned to three, and three turned to four — these past several months have been an exercise in managing attrition for the New Orleans Saints defensive interior.
Before the summer arrived, the Saints were already facing a difficult problem to solve at defensive tackle, having cut ties with two key contributors from recent seasons in Sheldon Rankins and Malcom Brown.
That problem became more complex in July, when they learned standout defensive tackle David Onyemata would serve a six-game suspension to start the year for violating the league’s performance enhancing drug policy. Onyemata, Rankins and Brown combined to play 1,359 defensive snaps in 2020.
Finally, one of their most promising candidates to fill the void, Jalen Dalton, tore his triceps in the second preseason game, ending a potential breakout season before it began.
Now, with the season opener against the Green Bay Packers just days away, the question is getting louder: How will New Orleans grapple this high attrition rate at defensive tackle?
The plan is to combat numbers with numbers. They’ll get a look at their answer Sunday against Green Bay.
“It's going to take a huge group effort this weekend,” said coach Sean Payton. “We are playing a good football team obviously, a team that has been right near the top of the league in most offensive categories. I think it's going be important that we have a good rotation there.”
Spend any amount of time around a football team in the midst of any sort of personnel subtraction — whether through injury or front office decision — and invariably the conversation will turn to opportunity.
One of the Saints with the greatest opportunity in front of him is Malcolm Roach, a Baton Rouge native who impressed in his nine-game debut with the club last season after making the team as an undrafted free agent. He carried that over into a strong training camp, and is poised to play an important role now.
This is how the game works, Roach said. It is why the players invest so much time in their preparation during the offseason and the lead up to the regular season, because this opportunity is also what they’ve been dreaming about since they were kids. It’s up to those who are still available to keep the operation running smoothly.
“Football is not going to stop because we’re down one person,” Roach said. “The game’s still going to be played, the ball is still going to be kicked on Sunday. Ain’t nobody going to feel sorry for us, not at all, because we wouldn’t feel sorry if the other team had something going on.”
As things currently stand, the Saints are banking on a combination of newcomers and relative unknowns to keep things together — at least until Onyemata returns.
The Saints kept three defensive tackles on their initial 53-man roster: Roach, Shy Tuttle and Christian Ringo. The Saints signed Tuttle and Roach as undrafted free agents in 2019 and 2020, respectively, and Ringo is a journeyman whose last experience on a gameday roster came in 2018.
The team also agreed to free agent contracts with Montravius Adams and Jaleel Johnson, a pair of former mid-round draft picks from the 2017 draft who were released on roster cutdown day. Adams is on the active roster, while Johnson will start the season on the practice squad.
That means the club is going into the 2021 season with a group that played a total of 559 defensive snaps with New Orleans last season.
To a degree, the Saints were prepared for some of this: They went into training camp knowing they’d be without Onyemata. Dalton’s loss was an unexpected blow, but it did not interrupt the way the team has been getting ready for that initial six-game stretch.
Defensive line coach Ryan Nielsen has played a big role in developing some of these players the Saints are going to miss this season. Throughout training camp, he deployed a steady rotation rather than relying on static first-, second- and third-team units — a philosophy he believes has led to some of his unit’s successes.
“We just keep moving the guys, first team to third team, and they’re playing different players on offense, so it’s not the same matchup,” Nielsen said during the first week of training camp. “That helps them. So when we play Game 1 to Game 2 … they get accustomed to playing different players. It keeps them on their toes.”
It also allowed the Saints to take close stock of how much their young defensive tackles had progressed, watching them go up against players like Erik McCoy or Andrus Peat. Sunday, they’ll get a chance to see if the rotation they’ve assembled can keep things together until Onyemata provides reinforcement down the line.
“We’ve got guys that need to step up,” Roach said, “including myself.”