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Training Camp 2008: Breakdown of the Saints Defensive Tackles

Hollis Thomas

Success in the NFL often starts up front, “in the trenches” as the old saying goes. The defensive end position for the Saints is in pretty good shape with two highly paid stars. But DT is going to be a battle.

2007 Summary:

Last year didn’t start off well. Hollis Thomas came into camp badly out of shape and Brian Young broke his foot before the season started. Thomas was obviously not ready for a full game at the start of the season and the team had to play Kendrick Clancy and Antwan Lake often. Then after Young came back, he hurt is knee and eventually succumbed later in the year to an illness that was so bad, some were worried he might not play football again. Needless to say, defensive tackle was not a strong point and the entire defense showed the affects of it. The 2007 Saints could be a poster child for that old saying.

2008 Offseason:

The Saints did not pick up any major DTs in free agency, but did draft two promising rookies. Sedrick Ellis figures to be a monster for the Saints as the 7th overall pick in the draft and DeMario Pressley has loads of talent, but fell to the 5th round because of a disappointing college career. Orien Harris was signed as a free agent journeyman for training camp.

Most importantly in the offseason, some changes have been made outside of personnel additions. First the “read and react” defense of last year seems to be gone. The Saints defensive coordinator, Gary Gibbs, was so determined not to give up as much in the run game, that he went from a gambling, aggressive defense to a more reactionary defense. The objective was to keep the running backs in front of the defense so long runs couldn’t gash them. While it did help the run, it seems to have been an overall failure and public comments from the players seem to indicate that will change in 2008.

Secondly, the defensive line guru, Ed Ogeron was hired after being fired from the head coaching job at Ole Miss. This could be a huge change for the Saints, as Ogeron is a high motor, high energy coach that has a reputation for getting the most out of the players he is given. This change should result in a very aggressive defensive line.

Competition summary:

Brian Young (66)
Hollis Thomas (99)
Antwan Lake (96)
Kendrick Clancy (71)
DeMario Pressley (90)
Sedrick Ellis (98)
Orien Harris (92)

The Saints will have seven players for most probably four spots at defensive tackle when training camp starts. It would be surprising if Young, Thomas and Ellis aren’t on the roster, so consider them locks to be there. And it is most likely that Orien Harris will end being just a camp body, unless the light goes off suddenly. That leaves Clancy, Lake and Pressley fighting for the available roster spot. First let’s walk through the three main players that it looks like will be in the starting rotation.

Hollis Thomas was an UDFA gem for the Philadelphia Eagles back in 1996. He was a solid contributor for nine years, holding the line steady there. The Saints traded for him before the 2006 season and he has been a staple on defense ever since. He is considered to be a space eater, who keeps multiple blockers occupied so others can get free. Despite that reputation, Thomas had at least 3 sacks in the last two seasons for the Saints. That’s quite impressive for a defensive tackle, especially being so out of shape in the beginning of last season, that he couldn’t stay out on the field the whole game. Thomas showed up to the OTAs this offseason in the best shape he has been in reportedly since early in his career. That’s great news for the Saints, but there is still one problem. Thomas is 34 and one would have to expect a decline in abilities to start to creep in.

Brian Young isn’t that much younger, just turning 31 on the 8th of July. After a rough season in 2007, battling injuries and a very serious illness, one has to wonder if he will be able to recuperate to full strength and stay healthy this year. That said, he probably will be one of the starting defensive tackles or at least be in the common rotation. Young is more of a backfield disrupter, than a space eater. That makes him a great compliment to Hollis Thomas.

Sedrick Ellis is getting a lot of buzz around Saints camp. After impressing even the starting offensive line of the Saints in the OTAs, many expect that he will be starting next to either Thomas or Young in September. Maybe rotating opposite them both at different times. Ellis has the athletic ability to knife through an offensive line and disrupt the backfield on either a run or a pass. In college, Ellis demanded a double team on almost every play or the offense paid the price. Expect him to not only make the roster, but probably start.

So that leaves us with the other four players vying for the final position. Unless something has really changed, expect Orien Harris to be cut in one of the early-to-mid rounds of cuts. And then there were three.

Kendrick Clancy has the most experience and playing time. The Saints picked up Clancy after he was cut by Arizona last year. Clancy has been a fairly good rotation DT in his career and Lake has been a rotation guy specifically for the Saints for the last two seasons, but both are 29 now and Clancy will be 30 as the season is starting. That may give Pressley an advantage, if he can perform as well as them both and show promise to improve even more. The age of Young and Thomas probably makes a younger player more desirable to the Saints coaching staff.

So the final spot is most likely riding on the performance of DeMario Pressley. If he performs well and breaks out of his reputation for underperforming to his abilities, look for him to take the final roster spot. If he doesn’t, Clancy and Lake will probably duke it out for that spot.

Overall, though, the defensive tackle position should show a marked improvement from 2007. As long as both Thomas and Young are generally healthy and Ellis is the stud everyone thinks he is.

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One Response to “Training Camp 2008: Breakdown of the Saints Defensive Tackles”

  1. KtoLV says:

    Great read. I’m really stoked about our DL this year.

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