Smartest (and Most Cost-Effective) Move Saints Should Make in 2019 NFL Free Agency


Photo by Jeffrey Beall

What if I told you that one of top priorities Saints head coach Sean Payton has said must be addressed this off-season could be one of the smartest moves the team makes when NFL Free Agency starts next week? According to Payton, the Saints must find a defensive tackle because the team is short-handed at the position, which could be accomplished by targeting and signing a player with these qualifications:

A young man who just turned 25 years old, grew up and went to school on the Gulf Coast, was named All-SEC at the University of Arkansas, and had 14.5 QB pressures along with four sacks while helping lead his team to the Playoffs in his fourth NFL season last year.

Does that sound like a good idea to you as a Saints fan?

Not only it would it be a smart move, but as an added benefit it could also end up being cost-effective one. The Saints are not trying to “break the bank” by spending a lot of money in Free Agency, but still would like to upgrade their current roster ahead of the 2019 NFL Season later this year — in what could be the franchise’s last chance at winning a Super Bowl before Drew Brees retires.

The player that we’re referencing is none other than unrestricted free agent and 4th-year veteran Los Angeles Chargers defensive tackle Darius Philon, who very quietly and with little fanfare, is considered one of the most underrated 3-Technique defensive tackles available in this year’s 2019 Free Agency Class.

As most Saints fans are aware: the team is expected to be short-handed to begin the 2019 Season at the critical interior pass-rushing 3-Technique defense tackle position with the loss of starter Sheldon Rankins, who is supposed to be out until October while he recovers from surgery for a torn Achilles tendon that he injured during the playoffs back in January.

At first, it appeared that his back-up David Onyemata would start in his place, but then, unfortunately, Onyemata was arrested in January for marijuana possession and now is facing a likely 4-game suspension from the League.

That leaves talented but relatively inexperienced undrafted rookie Taylor Stallworth as the proverbial “next man up,” but in all probability, the team would be facing a massive drop in production.

It’s the reason why Saints head coach Sean Payton told reporters last week that the defensive tackle position was among the team’s top priorities going into the current off-season.

This is a young man that potentially has a ton of upside, given that he has had at least four sacks in each of the last two seasons (4.5 sacks in 2017). Perhaps more importantly: he’s been durable, having played in all 32 possible games during that time.

Besides the four sacks, Philon also finished the season with 14.5 QB pressures last year and nine QB hits. For someone who has mostly been a rotational player throughout his professional career, that’s a pretty solid number, and it’s an indication of how good an interior pass-rusher that he really is.

Philon (pronounced FY-LAWN) is a perfect 3-technique for the Black and Gold’s defensive scheme under defensive coordinator Dennis Allen. At 6-foot-1 and an even 300 pounds, he is big enough physically to play the run, but yet he’s still small enough to be a quick and agile pass rusher.

Signing Philon would also be a smart move for Saints brass to make from a financial standpoint, as well. As reported by ESPN Saints beat writer Mike Triplett: the Black and Gold has approximately $10-12 million to spend in Free Agency this off-season, meaning that they’re expected to be less active in the market for available players than they normally are.

But Triplett notes that the Saints have never been known for being conservative, and with the team having fewer Draft picks this year while being as close as they have to winning a Super Bowl the past two seasons, they could make moves this Off-Season that would do any and everything to help “put them over the top.”

Losing Rankins and also Onyemata was a double-blow to the Saints defense, and signing Philon makes sense in that he could be a more-than-capable replacement in their absence, provide great depth once they return, and best of all: be cost-effective in that he shouldn’t require an expensive contract to come to New Orleans.

Philon earned a total salary last season of $700,000; which was the 4th and final season of the original 4-year, $2.5 million contract that he signed with the Chargers in 2015. The top salary for elite-caliber interior defensive linemen average anywhere from around $10-15 million per season, and Philon is said to be seeking a contract in the range of $5 million per season.

With his rookie contract now expired, this will be Philon’s very first time entering NFL Free Agency, and he’s been very consistent after assuming a starting role for Los Angeles right near the end of his 3rd NFL season back in 2017.

A native of Mobile, Alabama, Philon originally was selected by the Chargers in the 6th Round of the 2015 NFL Draft. He is one of the very few players ever drafted as a redshirt sophomore. After dealing with injuries and landing on injured reserve as a rookie in 2015, Philon missed playing in 10 out of his first 32 games in the League as the 3rd string DT along the Chargers D-Line.

But then late in his 3rd NFL season back in 2017, Philon was named a starter and started a career-high four games (appearing in all 16 games) while putting up career-bests that year with 31 tackles (16 solo), 4.5 sacks, 9 QB hits and one forced fumble on a total of 509 snaps.

Then last season in 2018 was Philon’s “break out” performance, as the former Razorback played a total of 607 snaps and tallied 33 tackles (19 solo and 8 of them that went for no gain or lost yardage) along with 4 sacks, 9 quarterback hits, and the 14.5 QB pressures that clearly demonstrated his ability to generate some big-time heat on opposing QB’s.

If the Saints could lure Philon to come to NOLA, he’d definitely be able to assume the role as the starting 3-Technique DT within the interior of the Saints D-Line until the return of Rankins, with Taylor Stallworth as his back-up.

That’s not to say that the Saints wouldn’t still consider adding another DT next month in the Draft, but signing Philon to a deal would give New Orleans adequate depth in their defensive interior while Rankins is out, not to mention for years to come after that.

The question then becomes a matter of Philon weighing his options and deciding which team he feels is the best ‘fit’ for his services.

Saints fans who live on the Alabama Gulf Coast will likely recall that Philon committed to Alabama as a high school senior, and he even wore an Alabama hat in anticipation of signing with the Crimson Tide during his official National Signing Day ceremony in early January of 2012.

However, just minutes before the announcement, Philon learned that the Crimson Tide program and head coach Nick Saban offered him only a grayshirt opportunity for his freshman year because of a knee injury that he had suffered in high school as a senior. A visibly disappointed and heart-broken Philon eventually decided instead to sign with the Razorbacks in time for the 2013 Season, choosing to attend Arkansas over Alabama, Auburn, and Mississippi State.

Philon initially had been an Alabama All-State defensive end for local Mobile-area football powerhouse Vigor High School in suburban Prichard, Alabama; where he was ranked as the 20th best strongside defensive end in the entire nation by Rivals.com.

As a high school senior in the 2011 Season, Philon helped lead Vigor to the 2011 5A Alabama High School Football State Championship game, where he made 10 tackles, 1.0 sack, and one fumble recovery while incredibly playing through a torn meniscus injury.

But it was that very same knee injury that made Saban and Alabama leery of offering him a full scholarship, and as they say: the rest is history.

As a redshirt freshman at Arkansas during the 2013 Season, Philon made an immediate impact; as he appeared in all 12 games and started the last five. In his first season in Fayetteville, Philon recorded 46 tackles (including 9 tackles for loss), with 3 sacks, 2 forced fumbles and 2 QB hurries. He also was named to the SEC All-Freshman team.

Then in his 2nd and final college season as a redshirt sophomore in 2014, Philon started in all 13 games, and he was named an AP second-team All-SEC selection. That year, Philon tallied 46 tackles (including 11.5 for a loss), along with 4.5 sacks, a forced fumble, 3 fumble recoveries, 6 QB hurries and two passes defensed/batted-down passes. Additionally, his 3 fumble recoveries ended up tying for the SEC lead and ranked Philon at #10 overall in the nation in that category.

Bottom line: this young man is still just reaching the pinnacle of his young professional career — and he’s exactly the player that the Saints defense needs in the interior of their defensive line, to compensate for Rankins’ absence and provide the team with quality depth whenever he returns.

Other positions of priority that Payton mentioned, such as tight end and an O-Lineman versatile enough to play both guard and tackle, would seemingly be better addressed in next month’s NFL Draft. With a limited amount of cap space to spend, making precise moves such as bringing in a player like Philon to solve one problem immediately and provide insurance for the future, seem logical and in this particular case, would be cost-effective.

With the New Orleans Saints being so close to winning a Super Bowl, making smart moves this Off-Season are going to be absolutely critical if the Black and Gold hopes to achieve their ultimate goal. Signing Philon would be one front office brass should consider making, when NFL Free Agency officially gets under way a week from tomorrow morning.

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