The New Orleans Saints have been in training camp one full week. After a day off on Tuesday, they resumed workouts while fans kept a watchful eye on their favorite players and positions.
Canal Street Chronicles continues our training camp look at the Saints by each position group. Today, our series continues by looking at a position that Saints fans have been screaming for help at for each of the past three offseasons.
(*) denotes rookie
Current camp roster: Cam Jordan, Alex Okafor, Hau'oli Kikaha, Trey Hendrickson*, Darryl Tapp, Obum Gwacham, Al-Quadin Muhammad*, Alex Jenkins*
Offseason Losses: Paul Kruger (free agent), Kasim Edebali (free agent)
Offseason additions: Alex Okafor (free agent), Trey Hendrickson (draft)
Cam Jordan is one of the most underrated defenders in all of pro football. He is the type of talent that would succeed in nearly any type of defensive alignment. He didn't have his best statistical season in 2016, but the two-time Pro Bowler still topped the team with 7.5 sacks, and remains the leader of a very young defensive unit. One of the major problems with the Saints defense in the last couple of years is the lack of presence opposite of Jordan. He is a talent that certainly commands double teams, and extra attention from opposing offenses. Teams have been able to stack against Jordan because they have little fear of leaving other New Orleans defenders in one-on-one matchups.
The Saints hoped they were getting such a defensive presence when they spent a 2015 2nd round draft pick on Hau'oli Kikaha. Kikaha is listed as a linebacker but plays the role of a hybrid defensive end. When at his best, he has tremendous strength and explosive speed around the edge. That was on display at times during his rookie year, when he started 11 games, had 4 quarterback sacks and forced 4 fumbles. Unfortunately, Kikaha missed all of 2016 when he tore his ACL in offseason workouts. It was the third time Kikaha had torn his ACL, and there are legitimate questions to whether he will ever be an effective NFL player.
Alex Okafor was signed to a 1-year contract this offseason away from the Arizona Cardinals. Okafor showed his potential during his second year in the league, when he had 8 sacks and an interception in only 12 games. The last two years had seen his playing time somewhat diminished, but the Saints are hoping that they are getting the 26-year-old just coming into his prime and hungry for a big contract. Okafor brings good strength and speed off the edge, and is also an effective inside rusher on stunts.
The majority of draft "experts" were projecting New Orleans to draft a defensive end or edge rusher with a 1st round pick in this spring's draft. To the dismay of some fans, the Saints waited until the 3rd round, when they drafted Florida Atlantic's Trey Hendrickson. Hendrickson is a talented prospect from a small school that caught the attention of NFL scouts at postseason workouts. He has good lateral movement, solid technique, and a nonstop motor that the Saints hope will translate into immediate results as a pass rusher.
Obum Gwacham hopes to bounce back this season, after missing all but one contest in 2016 due to injury. He flashed potential in limited action during 2015, when he showed good ability off the edge on his way to 2.5 sacks and a forced fumble in just 9 games. Even prior to injury last season, Gwacham struggled making any kind of impact during preseason, and must show vast improvement to make this team.
Eleven-year veteran Darryl Tapp added high effort and leadership to the Saints defensive line when added to the team in preseason last season. Tapp's upside is limited, but can be a steady defender, should any of the younger talent in front of him stumble. Al-Quadin Muhammad is an intriguing talent that could surprise. Never able to play a complete season at Miami (Fla.) due to off field issues, Muhammad had to wait until the 6th round to hear his name called this past spring. Although possibly more suited to a practice squad spot this season, he possesses good speed and power rush moves alike that could warrant the attention of the coaching staff.
Outlook: Cam Jordan is going to give the Saints what he always has; a Pro Bowl level defender against both the run and pass, along with being a terrific leader for a young defense. The continuing issue that New Orleans has yet to answer is how to give him any help on the other end of the defensive line. Okafor has been lining up with the 1st team most often through camp and offseason workouts.
It is very possible that the Saints will run a rotation opposite Jordan of Okafor, Kikaha, and Hendrickson, at least until one of them is able to separate himself from the others. New Orleans needs a difference maker at this spot badly. Badly. Far too often opponents have been able to stack their blocking against Cam Jordan, and the inability for other members of the New Orleans defense to make plays with their opportunities has been crippling to the team. The Saints seem to have some talented and young pieces across their defensive line. The time is now for these players to raise their level of play.