Saints free agent review: DT David Onyemata, stay or go?

We’re up for another busy offseason for the New Orleans Saints, who need to make some tough decisions on pending 2023 free agents like defensive end Marcus Davenport, linebacker Kaden Elliss, and slot receiver Jarvis Landry as well as quarterback Andy Dalton and tight end Juwan Johnson. Another veteran player who will hit the open market in March is defensive tackle David Onyemata, their best player at his position the last few years.

Will the Saints have room in the budget for No. 93? Onyemata hasn’t returned to the heights he reached previously in his career, but he’s still a steady presence in the interior rotation and easily New Orleans’ most consistent pass rusher along the inside. Finding a follow-up to his three-year, $27 million contract may be difficult. Let’s review his 2022 season and guess at what’s in store for 2023:

Season stats

Onyemata was officially credited with 5 sacks and 11 quarterback hits (plus a fumble recovery) as well as 43 tackles, 25 of them solo and 5 tackles for loss. Pro Football Focus charting had him with 35 total quarterback pressures, which is a slight improvement over his 2021 production but on more than 100 additional snaps as a pass rusher. Onyemata finished the 2022 season without being penalized once, which is the first time he’s accomplished that since entering the league in 2016.

Snap counts

Onyemata played 681 defensive snaps in 2022, fifth-most on the team behind every-down defenders Demario Davis and Tyrann Mathieu, as well as cornerback Paulson Adebo and defensive end Cameron Jordan. He was by far the team’s best option at defensive tackle. He also saw 66 snaps on special teams with the field goal block unit.

2022 season review

The Saints leaned heavily on Onyemata inside, asking him to play a lot of snaps over the B-gap while rotating in other players next to him. And he rewarded their trust in him to hold down that role by putting up respectable numbers as a pass rusher though his performance in run defense took a step back. He’s still a quality player overall and every defensive line in the league would welcome him to their depth chart.

Future value to Saints

Onyemata turned 30 in November and missed 6 games with a suspension for violating the league’s policy for performance enhancing drugs in 2021, so while he’s proven durable without much injury history it’s likely he’ll need to see a reduced role soon. And they probably can’t keep treating him as a load-bearing wall in their defense. The defensive line’s construction with Todd Grantham replacing Ryan Nielsen remains to be seen, but it would be nice to keep Onyemata around if he and the Saints can agree on a contract extension.

Stay or go?

Letting Onyemata leave in free agency would cost the Saints $10.1 million in dead money charges for previously restructuring his contract, which is far from ideal when they’re already over the salary cap by more than $57 million. New Orleans is also dealing with contract extensions for every other defensive tackle to play for them in 2022. They should make a strong effort to re-sign Onyemata, and it’s probably for the best if he returns in 2023 and beyond. It just depends on what kind of salary he’s seeking, but the Saints should be able to work something out here.

Prediction: STAY

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Story originally appeared on Saints Wire