The New Orleans Saints have undergone a defensive makeover within the last few seasons. Defensive end Cameron Jordan has always been a star, but underappreciated throughout the league largely because of the team's poor defensive performance. Two springs ago, New Orleans used it's 1st round pick, 12th overall, to draft powerful defensive tackle Sheldon Rankins. They then signed free agent tackle Nick Fairley, a player full of playmaking potential. After a season of noticeable improvement, Fairley was re-signed to a long term contract, and excitement was hard to contain over the potential of the Saints defensive line. Unfortunately, Fairley was diagnosed with a heart condition early in the summer, ending his season and potentially his career. Today's position grades takes a look at how this unit responded to Fairley's loss for the Saints in the 2017 season.
Cam Jordan had the best season of his seven year career. He led the team with a career high 13 sacks, 3rd highest total in the league. He added 2 forced fumbles, an interception returned for a touchdown, and an incredible 12 passes deflected. The 28-yr. old Jordan earned his first All-Pro honors, and was one of the NFL's most disruptive defenders in 2017, and a definite candidate for the league's defensive player of the year. He earned a 95.4 grade from Pro Football Focus this season, highest among all edge defenders, is one of the NFL's best all-around defenders.
Alex Okafor was signed as a free agent to hopefully, and finally, provide a stable force opposite Jordan across the Saints front four. Okafor turned out to be an underrated run defender, and was able to give the New Orleans defense another disruptive presence from his defensive end position. Despite his season being limited to 10 games, he still finished tied for second on the team with 4.5 sacks. An achilles injury suffered in a week 11 victory over the Redskins ended Okafor's season, and noticeably affected the performance of the line down the stretch and into the playoffs. Okafor should be healed in time for training camp, but is an unrestricted free agent this offseason.
Trey Hendrickson was a 3rd round pick from Florida Atlantic last spring after vaulting up the draft boards during postseason workouts. Hendrickson proved to be a raw prospect, but a solid run-stopper with good pass rush potential. Hendrickson missed time with injury down the final stretch of the season, as did Hau'oli Kikaha, who had 4 sacks and continued to show potential despite injury struggles. New Orleans signed George Johnson over the second half of the season to bolster depth, and the fifth year journeyman rewarded the team's decision with 2.5 sacks and providing consistent pressure on the quarterback. He is another unrestricted free agent entering this offseason.
Sheldon Rankins, the 12th overall pick in 2016, followed his promising rookie season with a bit of a slow start in 2017 before hitting stride over the second half. Rankins ended the season with 2 sacks, but was one of the NFL's most disruptive interior linemen, and even lined up effectively at end later in the season. He has the look of a star. Fellow defensive tackle Tyeler Davison continued to be a run-stuffing presence, making a number of big stops in key situations over the course of the year. The powerful Davison adds little as a pass rushing threat, but consistently commands the attention of double team blocking, better freeing up other Saints defenders for opportunities.
David Onyemata progessed nicely in his second professional season. Still a raw, but extremely athletic talent, Onyemata can still get caught off balance or out of position due to inexperience. He still finished the season with 2 sacks but was a force down the stretch and into the playoffs.
Losing Fairley before a game was even played hurt, but the Saints front four played well through the midway point of the season. The group was disruptive, held up well at the point of attack, and came through big in a number of short yardage and goal line situations. The Saints defensive line accounted for 30 of the team's 42 sacks. Injuries to Okafor and Kikaha affected the line badly as they entered their playoff stretch, particularly against the run. Okafor's contract situation this offseason is an underrated storyline, and may affect how much management addresses this position in the draft and free agency. Jordan is one of the best defensive players in the league, while Rankins and Onyemata are potential studs, and Hendrickson was a promising rookie to go along with good role players Davison and Kikaha.
DEFENSIVE LINE GRADE= B
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