Following a third consecutive 7-9 finish to their season in 2016, New Orleans Saints coach Sean Payton wanted a change. His defense had finished at the bottom of the league for the third straight season, and fourth time in the last five years. Payton already had a close relationship with defensive coordinator Dennis Allen, and liked the direction that Allen had in place. He also felt confident in his young secondary coach, Aaron Glenn, who had been hired prior to the 2016 season. Payton would make a move with two defensive position coaches, in the process moving on from two of his close friends, replacing defensive line coach Bill Johnson and linebacker coach Joe Vitt. Payton would replace Johnson with longtime college assistant Ryan Nielson for the defensive line, and the upgrade in results was almost immediate. Defensive end Cam Jordan was among the league leaders in sacks (13) and batted passes (11) in 2017 on his way to his first All-Pro honor. Defensive tackle Sheldon Rankins began to play up to his 1st round expectations from being the 12th overall pick the year before, and the defensive line as a whole had played better collectively. Last season Jordan was again among the NFL's best, but the entire defensive line turned out to be one of the league's most talented units. Today's training camp preview looks at a spot that may have some questionable depth, but has as good a starting duo as there is in the league.
Cameron Jordan is one of the most underrated players in the National Football League. One of the league's most respected edge pass rushers, Jordan has 71.5 career sacks in his eight years, including 12 sacks and 21 quarterback hits last season. More than just a skilled pass rusher, he plays the run as well as any defensive end in the league, consistently leading the defensive line in tackles, and has the athleticism to even drop into coverage occasionally. Jordan earned his fourth Pro Bowl nod in 2018, and is the cornerstone from which this defense is built around as well as a team leader.
One of the Saints defensive issues for multiple seasons was the lack of another consistent threat other than Jordan within the front seven, someone to draw opposing blockers off their star end. The emergence of Rankins over the last two seasons helped alleviate some of that, but New Orleans took another major step when they traded up to the 14th overall pick in the 2018 draft to select Marcus Davenport. The 6'5 265-lb. Davenport has tremendous length and athleticism on the edge, and showcased his vast potential early on in his rookie campaign. The 22-yr. old not only showed terrific natural pass rushing skills, but surprised many with his run defense. His development was hampered by a foot injury suffered at midseason, causing him to miss three games and limiting him a bit down the stretch of the year. He still finished the season with 4.5 sacks, 6 tackles for loss, and 12 quarterback hits to earn a spot on the All-Rookie team, but there will be heavy expectations on him in his second season. Reliable veteran Alex Okafor departed in free agency, and Davenport is expected to blossom into an every down threat to bookend Jordan.
The Saints are set at their starting edge spots, with Jordan and Davenport possibly combining to make one of the better end duos in the league. The free agent defection of Okafor, and little activity at the position in either free agency or the draft have some critics doubting the quality of depth that the team has here. Third year end Trey Hendrickson will be one of the players to step up and alleviate depth concerns. A third round pick in 2017, the 24-yr. old Hendrickson had a solid rookie year with 2 sacks and a forced fumble in twelve games. Last season though, he wasn't able to work his way into the lineup often, appearing in just five games, although he was credited with 4 quarterback hits. At 6'4 270, Hendrickson has good size for the position, and possesses long arms and a good motor. He plays the run fairly well, but has a limited arsenal of pass rush moves.
The Saints signed free agent end Wes Horton away from division rival Carolina in hopes of increasing quality depth. The 29-yr. old Horton appeared in 77 games over six seasons with the Panthers, starting 35, compiling 15.5 sacks, 95 tackles, and 7 forced fumbles. He sets a strong edge against the run, and can be a serviceable pass rusher. Horton has proven that he can be an effective starter when called upon, and the Saints hope that he can join A.J. Klein and Ted Ginn Jr. as ex-Panthers who have had success with them.
New Orleans signed a trio of undrafted college free agent ends at the conclusion of this year's draft. Former Wyoming star Carl Granderson will not be with the team now however, after receiving a six month prison sentence on sexual assault charges. U.S.C. edge Porter Gustin carries a relentless motor and good upper body strength to the pros, where he hopes to work his way into the rotation at either linebacker or rush end. Gustin isn't a dynamic pass rusher, but does use a good spin move and upper body movement to be effective, as well as the ability to set the edge well against the run. Former Brigham Young starter Corbin Kaufusi is a long defender at 6'9 278-lbs., who will likely need to add bulk for a longterm NFL future. Kaufusi is a smart player who uses good technique at the point of attack with the athleticism to chase down plays. The Saints also inked veteran Mario Edwards Jr. in free agency, who is expected to contribute at both tackle and end positions. A former 2nd round pick with the Oakland Raiders in 2015, the 25-yr. old Edwards spent three seasons there before a stint with the New York Giants last year. He has 7.5 career sacks with 20 credited quarterback hits, and has been a quality starter in the past. At 6'3 280-lbs., Edwards has the size to contribute inside and athletic ability to be a versatile defender on the edge.
The national media may not mention Cam Jordan among the NFL's best defensive players, but opposing coaches and quarterbacks recognized otherwise. He has been the one constant star, even when the defense performed poorly, and is now a key piece on one of the league's fastest rising defenses. The Saints hope that Davenport can put aside his foot issues, and mature into a dynamic defender on the other side. Defensive tackle Sheldon Rankins will be out until at least midseason with an Achilles injury suffered in the playoffs, lessening the impact that the tackle spot for the line. Jordan already draws 2-3 blockers on every play though, increasing one on one opportunities for the rest of the defense. Depth at the end spot is a concern, unless Edwards, Horton, or one of the undrafted rookies can establish themselves quickly. If they can, an already young and dangerous defense gets exponentially better.