The quarterback sack.
To define what it is would be a simple task, but it hasn't been so easy for the New Orleans Saints to earn them for the past three seasons. While 17-20 players in the NFL have recorded double digit sack totals every season from 2010-2012, not one Saint has accomplished this. As a matter of fact, the Saints ranked in the bottom half of the NFL in total sacks for three straight seasons. Applying pressure to the QB in the old 4-3 defense certainly helps in making things easier for the secondary, but the defensive front has failed to do that consistently for years.
Are you one of those few people that think that sacks are overrated? OK, that's fine. The Saints have also made it easy for opposing offenses to run, as they were ranked 4th in most yards allowed per attempt in 2011 and 13th in the same category in 2012. As the old saying goes, "the battle is won in the trenches", and the defensive line has not made it easy for the Saints to produce a winner on the field.
As soon as Sean Payton was reinstated, one of the first major changes that he made was to go with the 3-4 defense, resulting in the termination of defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo. While the change happened very quickly, it is obvious to me that Coach Payton saw from his Laz-E-Boy recliner that it was time to shake things up on the defensive side of the ball. Below average defensive play is no longer acceptable. This coaching staff is ready to take the next step in ensuring that the defense experiences some sort of improvement in 2013.
The only problem is that the roster was built for more of a 4-3 style defense. After years of underachieving, former first round pick Sedrick Ellis was not resigned. Career 4-3 starter and defensive end Will Smith was asked to join the linebackers. Some of the remaining defensive linemen were asked to change roles and new faces were brought in to compete in this new system. The Saints have basically torn the defensive line down and are looking to rebuild it from the ground up.
As of now, ten players are hoping to make an impact as a Saints defensive lineman in 2013. I predict that six or seven players will make the roster. While I am not 100% sure as to where each player will play the majority of his snaps, I like what I see in the first steps of the rebuilding process. Let's meet the guys who hope to break through in camp and in preseason:
PRESEASON LOCKS ON THE DEFENSIVE LINE:
The University of California product returns to the system that helped make him a first round pick in 2011. Coming off of a team high 8 sack season, the 24 year old Jordan is expected to shine once again in 2013. His spot as a starting defensive end is guaranteed. With his explosiveness and physical ability in the trenches, we could possibly see Jordan emerge as one of the best defensive ends in the NFL.
What to watch: Anything less than improvement from last season would be a disappointment. While his sack total may not increase all that much, look for Jordan to demand extra help from blockers of opposing offenses. This will open up opportunities for other players to get to the QB. The son of former Vikings TE Steve Jordan will be a disruptive force in this 3-4 system and could be a key player in making this transition a smooth one.
Is there anyone on the entire Saints defense that has more upside than Akiem Hicks? While he was evaluated as a 4-3 defensive tackle, the Saints are actually considering him to play defensive end in this 3-4 defense. At 6'5", 324 lbs, Hicks has the athletic ability to be a major pain in the backside of opposing offenses. His versatility in this style of defense makes him a very valuable chess piece for Ryan's new defense. If he lives up to or exceeds expectation, a new small school star may shine on the Saints roster in 2013.
What to watch: Are the Saints all in on Hicks being a defensive end, or will he also get time as a defensive tackle? He has the power to be disruptive wherever he lines up, but it is up to him to live up to that potential and up to the Saints to place him in the position where he is most likely to succeed.
I am very excited about this 3rd round pick out of Georgia. Widely considered as the best 3-4 nose tackle in this year's draft, the Saints snagged him at a bargain. He may start out as a nose tackle that is in the game for certain formations and game situations, but I see him as a player who will get better with time. Georgia had 3 linebackers drafted, and part of that is due to what Jenkins was able to do to demand double teams and open up holes for his linebackers to make plays.
What to watch: Does Jenkins have the strength, stamina, and athletic ability to open up gaps for the linebackers to do damage in the 3-4? Will Jenkins be able to do his part in stopping the run? I believe that if he works a little bit on his conditioning, he will make an immediate impact in rotation on the defensive line. The speed of the NFL game is much quicker now, with offensive linemen that are stronger and quicker than ever. In my opinion, having brute strength is not enough. He needs to work on his quickness and balance which I'm sure will be a focus of the defensive staff in training camp and in preseason.
In what seemed to be a common thing for the Saints in their 4-3 defense, defensive tackle Brodrick Bunkley did not perform up to his expectations in 2012. Coming into his 8th season, Bunkley will have to rebound in a 3-4 defense. At 306 lbs, Bunkley is more of the normal size for a Rob Ryan style nose tackle. I expect him to platoon with Jenkins in certain situations and hope that he can live up to the big contract paid to him in 2012.
What to watch: If Hicks is truly expected to play at defensive end, Bunkley will have to step his game up and prove why he was once a 1st round pick. The Saints are paying him a lot of money, so an expectation of being a solid platoon nose tackle is not too much to ask. He does have experience as a nose tackle in a 3-4 defense, so hopefully he will turn it around and at least have a season in the trenches comparable to his 2011 campaign in Denver. While he did record 2.5 sacks with the Saints last season, he had a ridiculously low tackle total and seemed absent on defense for the majority of the season. If he isn't more effective in the 3-4 this season than he was in the 4-3 last season, look for one of the younger guys to step into his role.
DEFENSIVE LINEMEN COMPETING FOR A ROSTER SPOT:
In my opinion, here are the guys who need to earn a spot on the defensive front. They have a 75% chance to make the roster, but still need to perform to stay above the other candidates:
The 12th year veteran out of UCLA has been a Rob Ryan favorite for years. He was part of his defense in Cleveland and moved with Rob to Dallas. Here he is again, making the move to the Saints to once again play under Ryan on defense. As a 34 year old defensive end, Coleman may have more to offer with his knowledge of the 3-4 scheme than he does on the field. It is very possible that Coleman sees some playing time and will get every opportunity to make the 53 man roster.
What to watch: Besides the great Drew Brees, Kenyon Coleman is by far the oldest player on the Saints roster. He is a true 3-4 defensive end, but it remains to be seen if he will do enough after camp to earn a roster spot. Rob Ryan loves him, but there are some younger guys who could give him a run at that roster spot.
As a reserve 4-3 defensive lineman, Tom Johnson has proven to be a capable reserve player. While he is athletic enough to play in the 3-4 defense, I wonder if his style of play fits into what Ryan is trying to accomplish.
What to watch: While Johnson may be a more versatile fit in a 4-3 defense, it seems to me that he will be best suited as specifically a 3-4 defensive end. There will be tough competition at that position, so Johnson will need to have a big camp and preseason to stay on this roster. Sometimes, I forget that he will be 29 on opening day, so he's not exactly one of the young bucks. If the Saints decide to take a chance on some younger guys with maybe a little more potential upside, Johnson might be an unexpected cut.
REACHING FOR A ROSTER SPOT:
Tyrunn Walker: The 3rd year player out of Tulsa has never recorded an NFL tackle. Patience may pay off. While Walker has looked impressive at times in preseason, he has not been able to break through. This 3-4 defense may actually be a good change for Tyrunn. His strength and athletic ability could give him a realistic shot to be on the 53 man roster this season.
Glenn Foster: The undrafted free agent rookie has raised my eyebrows. After watching some of his college footage, Foster is definitely the wild card. This kid is hungry. While he may be a practice squad guy in 2013, the Saints will take a long hard look at a kid who could possibly be the play maker of the future.
Isaako Aaitui: While I do admit that I do not know much about this guy, Aaitui will try to make his splash as a NT. At 6'4", 315 lbs, Isaako Aaitui ( pronounced ee-saw-AH-koe ah-ah-TOO-ee) has the size to play the part, but has had a tough time staying healthy. His name is also a lot of fun to pronounce.
Jay Richardson: After starting in his first 2 seasons as a Raider defensive end, Richardson has experienced a steady decline that has resulted in him not playing a snap of regular season football since 2010. After being out of the league in 2011, Richardson signed on with the Jets in 2012, only to be cut at the end of the preseason. I see a similar fate for the big man in 2013.
While I see a starting lineup with Jordan, Hicks, and Jenkins/Bunkley, the back up defensive linemen need to be able to come in and not miss a beat. I think the Saints will look for versatile linemen. This is one of the toughest positions to predict, but I'll give it a shot.
Defensive Line Predictions:
* Cam Jordan
* Akiem Hicks
* John Jenkins
* Brodrick Bunkley
* Kenyon Coleman
* Tom Johnson and/or Tyrunn Walker
Practice Squad: Glenn Foster
If the Will Smith at LB experiment fails and Ryan decides to move him back to the DL, the Saints may not keep Johnson or Walker. There are so many question marks with the front 7, so I can go so many ways with my prediction.
Our next roster preview will introduce us to the linebackers, which may be the most interesting position battle in camp.