By Mike Triplett and Nick Underhill
The Saints are starting to fill in the gaps at defensive tackle.
After losing David Onyemata and Shy Tuttle during the first wave of free agency, the team agreed to terms with former Chiefs defensive tackle Khalen Saunders and former Jets DT Nathan Shepherd on Wednesday.
The Saints still need to upgrade the three-technique spot with a disruptive pass rusher – which was one of their top priorities heading into the offseason even before they let Onyemata depart. But it’s also a must to build out depth in a position group where the Saints have always valued rotating guys in and out of the lineup.
Saunders is arguably the more exciting addition of the two after he broke through with his best season last year. A third-round pick in 2019, the 6-foot, 324-pound Saunders served as a rotational player in Kansas City, where he played around 35% of the snaps each season after battling injuries early in his career, including a dislocated elbow during his second season and a knee injury during his third year.
Saunders has been a better run stopper than pass rusher throughout his career, and the team likely envisions him as an all-around role than someone expected to come in and generate a bunch of sacks. The defensive tackle finished with a career-high 4 ½ sacks last year and generated 20 total pressures on 300 pass-rushing snaps.
More importantly, though, Pro Football Focus graded Saunders as the 53rd-best run defender out of 141 defensive tackles last year. The site placed him in the 70th percentile in run-stop percentage (8%). Those are traits the team needs as it tries to improve its run defense.
Members of the Chiefs defense credited Saunders with being a key part of their success as they watched him grow and develop throughout his career. If their assessment is true, perhaps New Orleans just took someone else’s untapped-potential guy after Atlanta took New Orleans’ version in Kaden Elliss.
“I’ve seen Khalen Saunders develop into one of the best d-tackles in football,” Chiefs edge rusher Frank Clark declared at the team’s Super Bowl media availability. “Some people would kill me for saying that — but I’m saying it. I know football. I know players — and Khalen Saunders is that. I feel like he’s the real deal.
“I feel like there’s a lot of players who don’t get the love and attention because of the dynamic of our team. I feel like Khalen is definitely one of those players.”
Chiefs defensive tackle Chris Jones had a similar assessment.
“The big guy can move,” Jones said at the Super Bowl. “It’s all what we expected of Khalen. He’s been available for us in critical situations. His growth has been impeccable. His biggest thing was staying injury free.”
Shepherd (6-4, 315) is another rotational piece who projects primarily as a run-defending nose tackle but has experience at both DT spots. He played around 40% of the defensive snaps for the Jets over the past two years after establishing himself as a mainstay in their rotation, finishing with a career-high 33 tackles last year and 1.5 sacks.
A third-round draft pick out of Fort Hays State in 2018, Shepherd has a total of 104 tackles and six sacks in five seasons. The 29-year-old got a later start than most after being born in Canada and eventually latching on at the Division II school. He re-signed with the Jets on a one-year deal last year in his first taste of free agency before moving on this time around.
Jets coaches praised Shepherd as a hard worker, and PFF also gave him above-average marks as both a run defender and pass rusher.
For years, the Saints were one of the best run defenses in the league, which allowed the team to dictate the action by making their opposition one-dimensional. But last year, despite retaining many core players on the defensive line, New Orleans ranked 24th with 133 yards allowed per game. The defense had ranked in the top five every season since 2018 before last year’s dip.
There were bigger issues on the defensive line that led to the dip in overall sacks, but being poor against the run did eliminate one advantage the team used to have and played a part in the overall deterioration.
The new additions won’t solve all of it. Saunders and Shepherd are only pieces of the puzzle. New Orleans needs to continue to add talent at this position and fill out a depth chart that currently only holds three names at defensive tackle, with Prince Emili being the other.
The Saints are expected to continue exploring the free-agent market for available talent. Defensive tackle will likely remain a draft priority despite this addition, assuming the value exists when the team makes its first selections with Pick 29 or 40.