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Last offseason, the Saints planned on shifting LB Hau’oli Kikaha to a pass-rushing Defensive End, but a season-ending injury in training camp never allowed the Saints to try the Kikaha Defensive End experiment. On the other end of the line, Cam Jordan did Cam Jordan-esque things, finishing with 7.5 sacks.
To replace Kikaha across from Cam Jordan, the Saints used a combination of Paul Kruger, Kasim Edebali, and Darryl Tapp, all of whom left a lot to be desired.
They signed Nick Fairley to a one-year, incentive-laden deal that proved to be one of the biggest bargains in football as Fairley (as he is known to do in contract years) put up big numbers with a career high in sacks with 6.5 in 2016. Along with Nick Fairley in the middle of the Saints defensive line, the Saints also saw rookie DT Sheldon Rankins debut in the middle of the season after himself suffering an injury early in camp. Also in rotation at DT were David Onyemata and Tyeler Davison who each showed flashes of potential as the season went on.
This offseason, the Saints were able to re-sign Nick Fairley and drafted Trey Hendrickson out of Florida Atlantic in the third round of the 2017 NFL Draft. To compete with Hendrickson, the Saints also signed DE Alex Okafor, formerly of the Arizona Cardinals, and expect a healthy Kikaha to be ready for the start of the regular season this year.
So here’s why they’re better in 2017:
Well, for starters, a healthy defensive line will be a better unit in 2017, specifically regarding Sheldon Rankins. Rankins played in only 8 games in 2016 but still logged four sacks, three tackles behind the line of scrimmage, and six QB hits. If he can double those numbers in a full season, he will really be something special.
Rankins and Fairley will be a formidable duo in the middle of the Saints defensive line, and we can still hope for continued improvement from young players like Oneymata and Tyeler Davison. The real question is going to be who rushes the QB opposite Cam Jordan at Defensive End?
Between Kikaha, Alex Okafor and Trey Hendrickson, the Saints hope to find a consistent pass-rusher. Like Fairley last season, Okafor signed a one-year deal in hopes of turning a productive single season into a new multi-year contract. Okafor was transitioned to a situational pass-rusher in Arizona, and could share time with rookie Hendrickson and newly-minted DE Kikaha. In any event, the Kikaha/Okafor/Hendrickson trio will almost have to be better than the cluster-mess that was Kruger et al last season.
And with improved play on the other end of the defensive line, we should also see improved play from Cam Jordan. More talent balanced throughout the line takes away from opposing teams’ ability to double-team Jordan on a consistent basis. And if one of the Kikaha trio is able to break out, we might be able to see a monster year from Cam. While he still logged 7.5 sacks in 2016, this tied for the single-season lowest of Cam Jordan’s career. It’s no surprise that his single best year came in 2013 when the Saints also had Junior Galette to attack opposing quarterbacks.
If the Saints can get improved play around Cam Jordan, it wouldn’t be a shock to see Cam put up one of the better years of his career in 2017. Couple that with solid play from veterans Fairley and Okafor, and growth and development from young players like Kikaha, Rankins and Onyemata, the Saints defensive line could be more than formidable in 2017.