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GENERATION NEXT: Young Interior D-Linemen Give Saints Pass Rush New Life

When the New Orleans Saints announced their final 53-man roster yesterday, many observers were thrilled to see 2nd year UDFA defensive tackle Mitchell Loewen make the team.

Loewen, a former defensive tackle and tight end at the University of Arkansas, overcame the "long shot" odds that he had been assumed to have of making the Saints squad, by having put together a solid Training Camp and subsequently showed flashes of great potential to become a special player for the team's interior pass rush.

As it is, Loewen almost didn't even get the chance to play in the NFL at all.

In a game at Tiger Stadium in Baton Rouge during the tail end of the 2015 college football season in what was his senior year, Loewen suffered a Lisfranc injury during the annual "Battle For the Golden Boot" game between his Razorbacks and Arkansas' bitter SEC rival Tigers of LSU.

In the end, it was determined that the Lisfranc injury would require surgery.  He still decided to enter the 2016 NFL Draft, but no NFL team was willing to draft a injured player who hadn't had any major playing achievements in his time at Fayetteville. 

In early May of last year, the Saints decided to give Loewen a shot at making the team as an undrafted rookie free agent at defensive end.

However, as soon as he got to Saints Rookie Mini-Camp last year, he knew immediately after trying to play on the foot at full speed, that it hadn't had the time to fully and properly heal all the way.

Photo courtesy of WWL TV New Orleans

"I was just trying to fight through the pain, because you’re trying to make the team," Loewen told New Orleans Advocate beat writer Joel A. Erickson in a one-on-one interview last week, before yesterday's final roster cut-down.

"You’ll do anything you can, and they saw me running out there with a little bit of a limp."

Erickson noted that it was determined by Saints team doctors that Loewen's foot hadn't healed properly, and he spent his entire 2016 rookie season on injured reserve.

While the rest of the team was competing every day, Erickson says that Loewen was stuck watching veterans Cameron Jordan and Darryl Tapp take additional snaps away from him; as he was left only with the hope for a chance to play defensive end once he was healthy.

But once Loewen reported to off-season OTA's and then Training Camp a few weeks ago, the defensive coaching staff suddenly had other ideas -- when thanks to this year's loss of veteran defensive tackle Nick Fairley to a heart condition -- the team quickly found itself short on bodies in the interior of the D-Line at the defensive tackle position.

The Saints then asked the 6-foot-5 inch, 290 pound Loewen to switch from end over to tackle, the position he had originally played at Arkansas as a freshman before switching to tight end in his sophomore season of 2013.

"He has some of that length that helps you as an interior rusher," defensive coordinator Dennis Allen told Erickson last week.

Erickson adds that Loewen made the most of his opportunity during the Pre-Season, by notching 1½ sacks, 7 tackles (5 solo) and 5 quarterback hits in 4 total games, and he was equally effective on special teams, nearly blocking a punt in games both against the Chargers and the Ravens.

Photo courtesy of Getty Images

Pro Football Focus says that Loewen's 2017 Pre-Season was so good, that it rated a 7.9 in interior pass rush productivity --- the 2nd highest in the entire League behind Philadelphia Eagles defensive tackle Elijah Qualls.

But Loewen's outstanding Pre-Season followed by yesterday's announcement that he made the team's Final 53-man roster also means something else now for the Saints defense: they officially have converted the interior pass rush on their defensive line for this upcoming 2017 season that begins a week from tomorrow night in Minnesota, over to a complete and total "youth movement".

In fact, you can now refer to all 4 defensive tackles on the Saints 53-man roster entering the 2017 NFL season -- Loewen, Sheldon Rankins, Tyeler Davison, and David Onyemata -- as "Generation Next".

That's because all 4 of the young men now currently playing the defensive tackle position are under the age of 24.

While there isn't any doubt whatsoever that the Saints will miss the contributions that Fairley would have brought to the table this year, the Saints interior pass rush seems to still be in capable hands.

Last year's top draft pick (#12 overall), Rankins has had an outstanding Camp and Pre-Season; and even flashed his ability to outright dominate the line of scrimmage, during a win over the Texans 2 weeks ago.

Photo courtesy of Michael DeMocker, NOLA.com | The Times-Picayune

Onyemata, the team's 4th round pick last year, is a former Canadian college 2015 Defensive MVP who has shown a considerable amount of growth from his rookie season last year to his 2nd year this season, and looks to have the potential to become a star in his own right.

And there's the solid if not spectacular Davison, who quietly has had a solid Camp and Pre-Season and is expected to start at the 1-Technique / nose tackle spot next Monday Night against the Vikings.

Now that you can add Loewen's name to the list, the Saints have 4 defensive tackles on their current roster who weren't born before September 23rd -- which is when Davison will turn 25 in three weeks from now.

Onyemata will turn 25 on November 13, Loewen will turn 25 in next February on Valentine's Day, and Rankins is actually the "baby" of the group and won't turn 24 until next Spring (April 2nd).

What it all means is that the Saints -- whether by some sort of specific intent or grand design -- have gotten considerably younger, faster, stronger, and hopefully better at the defensive tackle position; as well as physically younger in age.

Photo courtesy of USA TODAY Sports

That should make the Saints interior pass rush as a whole even better as well; along with the additional hope that it will directly correlate into some more wins rather than losses up on the scoreboard at the end of each game this coming season, as a result.

The New Orleans Saints interior pass rush for the upcoming 2017 regular season that begins next Monday Night in Minneapolis, appears to be in good and capable hands with "Generation Next".........

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Saints News Network Editor / Featured Columnist Barry Hirstius is a 51-year old semi-retired journalist, former New Orleans-area sports editor, and columnist previously with several sites that exclusively cover the New Orleans Saints football team. Additionally, he is a recurring guest on a variety of local Sports Talk Radio programs. Barry is also a New Orleans native who grew up as a fan of the team while attending games as a young boy at the old Tulane Stadium in the early 1970’s, originally following and now covering the team for a span of over 40 plus years. And perhaps most importantly of all: he is the Grandfather of two beautiful young girls, Jasmine and Serenity.....

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