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Defensive tackle Khalen Saunders (50) stands on the practice field between drills during the New Orleans Saints OTAs at the Ochsner Sports Performance Center in Metairie, La., Wednesday, June 5, 2024. (Photo by Sophia Germer, The Times-Picayune)

After giving their defensive line interior a facelift prior to the 2023 season, the New Orleans Saints chose to enter 2024 with largely the same cast of characters.

The only roster attrition the Saints faced at defensive tackle was Malcolm Roach, who signed a free agent contract with the Denver Broncos after playing 37% of the Saints' defensive snaps last season as a rotational player. New Orleans used a sixth-round pick in the 2024 draft on Khristian Boyd and also signed veteran Kendal Vickers.

For the most part, the rotation is set. Now the question those players face is whether they can improve their production as a unit in their second year playing together. Here is a look at the Saints’ defensive tackles heading into the 2024 season.

Current roster

  • Bryan Bresee
  • Khalen Saunders
  • Nathan Shepherd
  • Khristian Boyd
  • Kendal Vickers
  • Jack Heflin
  • Kyler Baugh

Burning question

Can this unit help restore a once-proud rushing defense?

Oddly enough, the advanced statistics liked the Saints run defense last season. New Orleans ranked fifth in the NFL in Expected Points Added (EPA) per play against the run last season (-.18), and only the Texans and Patriots had a better opponent success rate against the run than the Saints (34.1%) last season.

Those statistics are surprising, because for the second consecutive year the traditional counting stats suggested the Saints had a poor run defense. A year after finishing 24th in run defense, New Orleans only marginally improved, finishing 22nd after allowing 119.9 yards per game.

The run defense doesn’t all fall on the defensive tackles, of course. The Saints defense as a whole has had recurring issues containing scrambling quarterbacks, for instance, and last year, quarterbacks accounted for nearly 20% of the rushing yards the Saints yielded (and six of the 11 runs of 20 or more yards).

But it is the defensive tackles’ job to both eat up blocks to free the second-level defenders to make plays, and to penetrate into the backfield to either blow up a run or re-route it. The rebuilt defensive interior was too often not good enough in either of those categories last season.

As a rookie, Bryan Bresee was New Orleans’ most productive defensive interior player last season, leading all Saints defensive tackles in sacks (4.5), tackles for loss (7) and pressures (31, according to Pro Football Focus). Bresee also had two sacks negated by penalties.

But the overwhelming majority of Bresee’s playtime came in passing situations, and there was a reason for that. Bresee’s 6-foot-5 frame can work against him as a run defender, allowing opponents to get a quick leverage advantage. PFF gave him a 30.1 grade as a run defender, which was one of the five worst among qualifying interior defenders.

If Bresee can learn to play lower this season, he may be able to contribute more as a run defender and increase his overall workload — last season he played 48.7% of the defensive snaps.

Khalen Saunders and Nathan Shepherd both joined the Saints as free agents prior to 2023 and combined to log more than 1,100 snaps last year as 17-game starters.

Though Shepherd was more productive (3.5 sacks, 23 pressures), he struggled as a run defender. Pro Football Focus gave him a 30.3 grade as a run defender, ranking him just ahead of Bresee and 124th out of 130 qualifying defensive tackles.

Bold prediction

Sixth-round rookie Khristian Boyd will be a pleasant surprise.

Expectations shouldn’t be too high at this point for Boyd, who is not even a lock to make the roster as the No. 199 pick in this year’s draft. Defensive tackle is also a notoriously difficult position to make an immediate impact at the NFL level, and that’s especially true for someone making the jump from Northern Iowa.

But, as we’ve already pointed out, stopping the run was a problem for the Saints defensive interior last year, and that is an area where the 6-foot-2, 320-pound Boyd may be able to contribute right away.

Past offseason position resets

Quarterbacks

Interior offensive line

Defensive ends

Email Luke Johnson at ljohnson@theadvocate.com.

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