Since the end of the 2001 season, the New Orleans Saints have seen three high-quality defensive tackles depart in virtually every manner imaginable. La'Roi Glover exited as an unrestricted free agent in 2002, Norman Hand left via a 2003 draft day trade, and Grady Jackson was handed his walking papers last fall.
Three years after the Great Defensive Line Exodus commenced, however, the Saints will go to training camp in a couple weeks with a unit that is arguably superior to the one that started for New Orleans in 2001.
And, just as significant, one that is much deeper.
"Your head is spinning already (in mini-camp), and then you look around, and you wonder where you're going to fit in," said defensive end Will Smith, the Saints' first-round pick in the 2004 draft. "There are a lot of good linemen here."
Indeed, if the knee problems that limited him this spring don't continue to hamper Willie Whitehead, a versatile veteran who can play end or tackle and who registered 5½ sacks in 2003 despite missing five games, the Saints can probably lay claim to the NFL's best-stocked defensive front. In a league where the combination of defensive line quality and quantity is characteristically a futile pursuit, and where teams never seem to have enough big bodies, creating meaningful depth on a unit for which solid backups have historically been difficult to secure is no small feat.
At no position, perhaps, is strength in numbers more critical than on the defensive line. Assuming that Whitehead is completely recovered, and that Smith and fifth-round tackle Rodney Leisle are as good as advertised, the Saints have at least eight solid players. One reason is that, in each of the past five drafts, New Orleans has chosen at least one lineman in the first three rounds.
The Saints have selected a first-round defensive lineman -- ends Charles Grant in 2002 and Smith this year, along with tackle Johnathan Sullivan in '03 -- in each of the last three drafts. In March, they added unrestricted free agent Brian Young, a high-motor veteran who already has established himself as a leader. He joins a group that includes holdovers such as end Darren Howard, tackle Kenny Smith, and Whitehead.
"There can't be many teams out there with this kind of (depth)," acknowledged the often impetuous Grant, the Saints' sack leader in 2003, with 10.
Maybe not. But given the emphasis many personnel directors place on adding defensive linemen at every opportunity, the NFL might be embarking on a season in which several teams have more depth at the position than at any time in recent history. It is, for sure, a conscious and calculated effort, and no club reflected that more in this offseason than the New York Giants, who added six veteran linemen and drafted another front four player.
The Giants demonstrated that, if you're 300 pounds, have lined up and played in the NFL and still have a pulse, there's a spot for you in training camp. Scan current unemployment rolls and, while some positions are marked by veterans still looking for work, there aren't many defensive linemen available. Think about the depth Bill Parcells created in 2003, as Dallas added three linemen (Kenyon Coleman, Leonardo Carson and Eric Ogbogu) who weren't in camp but made meaningful contributions, and it's a graphic representation of how a few ambulatory bodies really help at the position.
"Finding (defensive line) depth is like finding hen's teeth," noted one AFC coordinator whose team would like to add one more veteran front four player before camp.
Beyond the Saints, the franchises with some teeth in their defensive line units include Carolina, Buffalo, Cleveland, Dallas, Denver, Kansas City, Philadelphia, New England and the Giants. They may not be the strongest starting units -- although it would be tough to dispute that the Panthers own the premier front four -- but all have strength in numbers. And that is a prized commodity for a defensive line.
Here is a largely subjective look at the deepest, not necessarily the best, units at other positions as teams prepare for training camp:
Quarterback: Because of injuries to Rich Gannon (shoulder) and Marques Tuiasosopo (knee), you might have to put an asterisk (or a red cross) next to the Oakland Raiders. But if the incumbent starter and former backup are healthy, then the addition of Kerry Collins, who will move into the lineup by 2005 at the latest, provides the Raiders with quality all through the depth chart. A year ago, Tuiasosopo was being groomed to be the eventual starter. A year from now, he'll probably be gone, a talented player who likely will have to take his game elsewhere to get a shot at playing time.
Oakland gets the nod in a close call over Green Bay, which dramatically upgraded its No. 2 slot by signing Tim Couch, who affords the Packers their best insurance policy in years. Washington was also strongly considered, since Patrick Ramsey could start elsewhere and Tim Hasselbeck played surprisingly well in 2003. Adding veteran Jeff Blake bolstered the Philadelphia depth chart and Miami, Seattle and Minnesota also have good depth.
Offensive line: OK, so Kenyatta Walker is viewed by many as a first-round bust, right? But the former No. 1 selection has started at both tackle spots for Tampa Bay, including a Super Bowl start, is just 25 years old, and might be hard-pressed to hold onto his spot as the Bucs' third tackle this year. Remember, this is not about the best unit, but the deepest, and the plight of Walker is reflective of how many experienced linemen Tampa Bay now has.
Even with the trade of tackle Roman Oben to San Diego, the Bucs roster still includes nine blockers who have started at least 25 games each. Since the Bucs will probably have just one starter from 2003 back in the same spot in 2004, continuity is non-existent, and cohesiveness might be tough to achieve. But there is no denying Tampa Bay improved on quantity, if not necessarily on quality, in the offseason.
Other contenders include Kansas City, New Orleans and, a bit of a sleeper, Jacksonville, which added two proven starters in tackle Ephraim Salaam and guard Mike Compton, both of whom will have to win No. 1 jobs in camp.
Wide receiver: Perhaps the toughest call at any position but here was the rationale that provided the tiebreaker: The starting wide receivers for the New England Patriots in the 2003 season opener, Troy Brown and David Patten, will be fighting for their lives when training camp 2004 begins. By the end of last season, injuries and the speedy emergence of youngsters like Deion Branch and David Givens relegated Brown to the No. 3 spot. Patten played in just six games and finished the year on injured reserve. If kickoff return man Bethel Johnson figures out how to use his blistering speed at receiver, the wideout corps could get even younger.
Last year, we chose the Browns as the NFL's deepest receiving corps because few teams could match up across the board with their speed, and Cleveland remains among the top groups in the league. Others include Green Bay, Indianapolis, New Orleans, Seattle and, with the addition of Terrell Owens, of course, Philadelphia.
Tight end: The skills of one of the NFL's most unheralded players, Jason Dunn of Kansas City, allows Chiefs coaches to be very creative in their use of Tony Gonzalez. Yeah, Dunn had just five catches in '03, but three were for touchdowns, and he is an excellent in-line blockers who frees Gonzalez to catch 80 balls a season. The addition of Kris Wilson in the second round this spring was criticized in some quarters but, despite sometimes reverting to being a "body catcher," the former University of Pittsburgh star will add even more flexibility.
The Indianapolis tandem of Marcus Pollard and Dallas Clark is top-shelf, assuming the latter is fully recovered from a 2003 injury. The Miami, Houston and New England units have much potential, especially if the Patriots can get first-rounders Daniel Graham and Ben Watson to play up to potential. And it's tough to ignore an Oakland group that has enough depth to bump former starter Doug Jolley to the No. 3 spot.
Running back: Atlanta is the lone team that returns two tailbacks who each rushed for more than 600 yards in 2003 and logged at least 125 carries each. But T.J. Duckett must still turn those Kodak moments into a full-length highlight reel and Warrick Dunn has to come back from a foot injury that lingered into the spring. In Carolina, DeShaun Foster will get the chance to build on his complimentary role behind Stephen Davis, but we want to see one more season of him at full-speed.
Corey Dillon could team with Kevin Faulk in New England for a nifty duet. If Michael Bennett is recovered from his broken foot of last season, Minnesota, which also has Moe Williams and Onterrio Smith, will be formidable. In Pittsburgh, Duce Staley will take much of the workload off the aging Jerome Bettis.
But going into camp, at least, the call goes to Green Bay. In addition to workhorse Ahman Green, the Packers have a couple young backs, Najeh Davenport and Tony Fisher, with real talent. And the fullback duo of William Henderson and Nick Luchey is solid as well.
Linebacker: The chic pick is New England, which can go two-deep in its 3-4, and seems to have a linebacker for every situation. But not even Patriots officials are convinced that Rosevelt Colvin, the team's highest-profile free agent acquisition last spring, is ready to go full-out in camp after the serious hip injury that he sustained last year. There are some positions in this column where we based a team's strength on projected recoveries from injuries, but Colvin's return seems too clouded right now.
And so we're calling this a toss-up between the Pats and another team, Baltimore, which has a high-profile player who might not be ready for the season. Peter Boulware will miss much of camp after offseason knee surgery and, by his own admission, is "iffy" for the '04 season opener. Fortunately, for the Ravens, they've got backups like Adalius Thomas and Cornell Green around. Inside 'backer Bart Scott looked good in mini-camps and, all but forgotten is T.J. Slaughter, a former three-year starter in his stint at Jacksonville.
Cleveland, which added Warrick Holdman, is well-situated. Ditto Carolina, which should get Mark Fields back from his battle with cancer, and which brought in veterans like Brandon Short and Jessie Armstead in the offseason.
Secondary: Kudos to Tampa Bay for adding former Dallas starting cornerback Mario Edwards, an under-appreciated veteran who will enhance the Bucs' "nickel" package. And to Baltimore, which will gamble on Dale Carter, but had pretty solid depth even before it signed the one-time Pro Bowl cover man whose career was short-circuited the last several years by off-field problems.
But the fact is, no one can touch the Pats in terms of quality and quantity in the "back end," and New England just kept adding spare (but serviceable) parts in the offseason. The Pats signed free agent corners Jeff Burris and Terrell Buckley, made tentative peace with Ty Law, and drafted three defensive backs. How deep is New England? Well, just think back to 2003, when the Pats released free safety Lawyer Milloy a week before the season started, benched replacement Antwan Harris after only one game, moved college cornerback Eugene Wilson to safety, and won the Super Bowl. Not had, huh?
Len Pasquarelli is a senior NFL writer for ESPN.com.