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Saints defensive line looks to anchor and set the tone for 2018

The Saints defensive line wasn’t perfect last season, but they have a glorious opportunity to get there this year.

NFL: NFC Wild Card-Carolina Panthers at New Orleans Saints Stephen Lew-USA TODAY Sports

Our final New Orleans Saints installment from our SB Nation partnership with Football Outsiders focuses on the team’s defensive line, who were a driving force against the opposition last season. Be sure to check out the Football Outsiders store here.

Affecting the quarterback is something Sean Payton emphasized in the offseason, hence a big reason why they traded up to draft Marcus Davenport. Talk about the team’s ability on the defensive line and how they might repeat in 2018.

Scott Kacsmar: A strong defensive line rotation is obviously a great asset to have. The 2013 Seahawks and 2017 Eagles both won Super Bowls that way. With New Orleans, it’s really about Cameron Jordan, who was fantastic last year with 13 sacks and 49 hurries. He basically put that Carolina playoff win away with getting the last pressure on Cam Newton. That’s what you need to see from your star in January, much like what Von Miller did for the 2015 Broncos. If Jordan’s going to get help, then it’s probably more from Sheldon Rankins as he continues to develop (27 hurries help make a paltry sack total look better) rather than Davenport. At least that should be the case in 2018 when Davenport is likely to be a part-time pass-rusher more than a player who sees a high volume of snaps every week. That’s why I wasn’t crazy about the draft trade for a team that’s in win-now mode with Brees’ age, but Davenport is more of a long-term investment.

Of the 42 sacks the Saints defense had a season ago, 30 came from the defensive line. Cameron Jordan led the charge with 13, while Alex Okafor came in second on the team after he finished with 4.5 sacks. Hau’oli Kikaha (4), George Johnson (2.5), David Onyemata (2), Sheldon Rankins (2), and Trey Hendrickson (2) also pitched in for Ryan Nielsen’s line. Jordan led the way in quarterback hits with 28, with no one being in the same ball park as him (next highest was 9).

The interior is where the Saints could be even better this season, as many continue to stack the sack totals up to what Nick Fairley did in his lone season in New Orleans. The Saints finished last season as a ‘middle of the road’ rush defense, surrendering 111.7 yards per game, while the same could be said in their pass defense (224.8 yards per game). Overall, New Orleans finally got rid of the worst defense in the league stench, becoming a very respectable unit over the course of the season.

Marcus Davenport enters the fold and looks to make a huge impact as a rookie, but placing lofty expectations on his production and where he pens in varies. I would still expect Okafor to be in on first and second down opposite of Cam Jordan, with Davenport entering on sub-packages. I also envision a rush that could see Jordan lining up inside with Rankins, putting the likes of Davenport and Hendrickson on the outside to affect the quarterback.

Sheldon Rankins, David Onyemata, and Tyeler Davison all look to make a major impact for the Saints in 2018 on the interior. This is a team who was reportedly in play for Ndamukong Suh, but wasn’t able to land his services. So, Rankins and company will have to take it to the next level for the Saints to be successful. What’s interesting to see is who will emerge and become the fourth man in the rotation. Devaroe Lawrence and Taylor Stallworth have had some good moments, and one can’t overlook what Mitchell Loewen is doing on the outside (he can play inside as well).

Presumably facing stout competition this season against running backs like Le’Veon Bell, Devonta Freeman, Ezekiel Elliott, Todd Gurley, Saquon Barkley, and even Davlin Cook, this Saints defensive line will be instrumental in the successes or failures of the year.