The New Orleans Saints defensive line received a pretty hefty makeover during the offseason, which was mainly on the interior part of the line. The team was able to land Nick Fairley in free agency, and doubled down by taking Sheldon Rankins with their first-round selection. Injuries put a big dent in the team’s plan to use Hau’oli Kikaha off the edge, and veterans were brought in to help fill the void.
Our position outlook series for next year’s Saints picks up again by looking at the defensive big men in the trenches. We’ll go with the ends first. Free agents, free agent targets, players set to return (including practice squad), and some potential draft options are all considered.
What the Saints are working with
- Cameron Jordan, DE: Even though Jordan’s sack total dipped year over year, that didn’t mean he wasn’t a terror getting after the quarterback. Jordan was extremely disruptive for Dennis Allen’s defense, and continues to be one the premiere rushers in the league. Unfortunately, he doesn’t get a ton of the spotlight because it’s the Saints defense, but he’ll continue to keep putting in big work in 2017.
- Obum Gwacham, DE: If there’s one player I was really excited to see more out of in 2016, it was Gwacham. Unfortunately, it just didn’t happen. The former converted wide receiver could still bring depth and special teams for the new season, but he’ll likely have to fend off some impending competition.
- Hau’oli Kikaha, DE: After being swapped from strong side linebacker to an edge rushing presence in the offseason, it felt as though Kikaha would at least be a viable option for depth and potentially develop into an legitimate option opposite of Jordan. However, disaster struck in June for Kikaha, as he tore his ACL in the same knee twice in college. He’s obviously had a long time to recover, but can he be a reliable presence in 2017?
- Royce LaFrance, DE: You can’t exactly say much on what to expect from LaFrance, who has hovered around the team for 2016. He signed a reserve/future deal at the beginning of January, and would likely be viewed as a ‘camp body’ by many. Still, the former Tulane product has been absolutely excited about his opportunity, and should be one to keep an eye on.
- Kasim Edebali, DE: He’s a RFA, and has an uncertain future heading into 2017. The former undrafted rookie piqued in 2015, but wildly regressed in 2016. He appeared in all 48 games for the Saints since his rookie season, and sees action on special teams and in some relief duty. It’d be smart for the Saints to tender Edebali an offer, but like Gwacham, he’ll have to fight for a spot.
- Paul Kruger, DE: After his release from the Browns, the Saints looked to upgrade their pass rush with Kruger. Despite playing in 15 games and being the second-highest of all edge defender snap counts, he just didn’t make the big difference that everyone was expecting. It just proved a point that buying generic is a risk that doesn’t always live up to the name brand.
- Darryl Tapp, DE: Given the fact Tapp didn’t play a lot in the lineup, the times that he did had some pretty good results when in pass rushing and run stopping situations. He’ll turn 33 in September, and could be someone the Saints at least bring back on a veteran minimum deal for training camp to see what happens.
Free Agent targets
It’s interesting to talk about free agency and a pass rusher for the Saints. They could absolutely go out and sign a ‘big name’ in the hopes said name brings exactly what they’ve missed since Junior Galette has been out of the picture. But in the same breath, there are a few pass rushers in the draft that could be instant starters.
- Jason Pierre-Paul, DE: He’d arguably be the hottest name outside of Carolina’s Mario Addison. In 12 games, JPP had 7.0 sacks for the Giants defense, and graded out as the 13th best edge defender (5th best 4-3 end) from Pro Football Focus. He’s clearly still got it, and has no intentions of going anywhere for a one-year ‘prove it’ deal. The Saints would and could have a big problem solved by getting Pierre-Paul, but at the same time he hasn’t played a full season since 2014.
- Jabaal Sheard, DE: Clearly, Sheard is an attractive player entering free agency. After his four-year stint with the Browns, he joined the Patriots on a two-year deal. His first season was pretty stellar, and was likely one of the big reasons the Pats moved on from Chandler Jones. Unfortunately, his playing time regressed in 2016, but Sheard was able to nab 5.0 sacks and break up four passes.
- Andre Branch, DE: I’ve talked about the possibility of adding Branch previously, and I believe he’d be a great rotational guy and sub if something goes south with the primary plan. He could even start if it gets to that point. Branch shook off some big funk in his time with Jacksonville by putting in a respectable season with the Dolphins.
Here’s a mix of what the Saints could get in the high, mid, and low value out of the NFL Draft.
- High - Derek Barnett : I’ve already talked a good bit about Barnett in my ‘way too early’ mock draft. In my opinion, he’s the complete package. He has an ability to be the missing link the Saints have desperately missed. Perhaps Solomon Thomas rising up on draft boards is a good thing for the team, and maybe Barnett could be around when they pick at No. 11.
- Mid - Keionta Davis: I contemplated putting Jordan Willis (Kansas State) here, but I see him as a 2nd-3rd round pick. Chattanooga’s Keionta Davis, who was the SoCon Defensive Player of the Year, could turn some heads during Senior Bowl week. 2015 was a monster year for Davis, who finished with 13.5 total sacks. However, he was able to follow that performance up and lead the conference again in 2016 with 10.0 sacks.
- Low - Trey Hendrickson: The Florida-Atlantic star is one player to keep an eye on during the East-West Shrine Game. During practice this week, observers said that he’s showing off a very good spin move, among other bull rush options. Conference USA’s Player of the Year has been an absolute terror over the past two seasons, collecting 30 tackles for loss while adding 23 sacks.
In a nutshell
The Saints could take a lesson from the New York Giants from 2016. The G-Men invested heavily on their defensive line, and it definitely paid off. Fairley is essentially the Damon Harrison of the team, and they need to go get their Olivier Vernon to compliment Cam Jordan. In 2013, Rob Ryan’s first season as defensive coordinator, the Saints turned in their best sack effort (49) since 2001 (53). Over the past three seasons, they’ve been a bottom of the barrel type of sack machine, turning in just over 30 sacks in each. Maybe this is the season we finally get the answer.