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Saints 2021 offseason preview: Defensive Line

Saints defensive line finishes top-8 in sacks, and top-4 in rushing

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2020 Season Review

The 2020 Saints defensive line was highlighted by a career year from defensive end Trey Hendrickson. The fourth year player posted a career high 13.5 sacks, after combining for just 6.5 sacks in his first three years in the NFL. Cameron Jordan turned in another solid year, recording 7.5 sacks and helping the Saints defense to once again be one of the premier run defending units in the NFL. David Onyemata and Carl Granderson also deserve recognition for posting career high numbers in sacks, finishing third and fourth on the team respectively.

Despite leading the team in sacks, it is looking increasingly unlikely that Trey Hendrickson will return to the Saints in 2021, as he is in need of a new contract, and the Saints simply do not have enough money to pay him what he deserves. With Hendrickson’s departure seemingly right around the corner, it will be up to players such as Granderson and former first-round pick Marcus Davenport to pick up the slack if the Saints are to remain one of the league’s top defenses.

2020 Personnel

(Player-Position-Snap Count)

David Onyemata-DT-665

Cameron Jordan-DE-908

Malcolm Brown-DT-390

Marcus Davenport-DE-440

Shy Tuttle-DT-372

Trey Hendrickson-DE-586

Carl Granderson-DE-330

Sheldon Rankins-DT-472

Malcolm Roach-DT-233

Upcoming Free Agents

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Trey Hendrickson

Coming off a career year, Trey Hendrickson will most likely hit the free agent market in line for a big pay day. With the Saints using the franchise tag on safety Marcus Williams, it is looking increasingly likely that Hendrickson will not be returning to New Orleans in 2021. If they are able to maneuver the cap enough that they are able to retain Hendrickson, they would be smart to bring him back, as you can never have enough pass rushers. If he does not return, players like Davenport and Granderson will have to step up and replace Hendrickson’s production.

Sheldon Rankins

Another potential loss in free agency would be defensive tackle Sheldon Rankins. Rankins had a career year in 2018, but since then has missed 10 games and only registered 3.5 sacks over the last two seasons. Injury troubles and the emergence of David Onyemata as a solid DT make it unlikely that the Saints will spend big money to retain him. When healthy, Rankins is still a young and good player that will improve any defense, but I feel that Saints will save their money to use down the road on players like Ryan Ramczyk or Marshon Lattimore, meaning Rankins will probably not be back in 2021.

Potential Free Agent Targets

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Tyson Alualu-DT

The former Jaguar has aged like a fine wine, getting better and better as his career has gone on in Pittsburgh. Alualu is one of the better run defending defensive tackles in the NFL, and would be a great replacement for Sheldon Rankins if the money is right. If Alualu is looking for a change of scenery from the Pittsburgh Steelers, the Saints could look to bring him in for a year or two on the veteran minimum while they solidify the defensive tackle position.

Jordan Jenkins-EDGE

Jenkins registered 15 total sacks over the 2018 and 2019, but took a step back in 2020, only recording 2 sacks. Despite this set back, Jenkins did suffer a shoulder injury that ended his season with four games remaining in 2020. Jenkins is technically an outside linebacker, but lines up as a pass rusher on a vast majority of plays, dropping into coverage on only 5% of his snaps. I would not expect him to start over Marcus Davenport, but he could be an affordable rotational player to bolster the defensive line upon Trey Hendrickson’s departure.

Potential Draft Targets

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Levi Onwuzurike-DT

Despite opting-out of the 2020 season, Onwuzurike is still projected to be a late 1st or early 2nd round pick in the draft. The Washington product is an athletic interior defender who gets off the block as quick as most tackles in this years draft. Onwuzurike would most likely be the best interior lineman that would be available at 28th overall without trading up, and he may very well be the newest member of the Saints come draft day if they are looking to replace Rankins.

Azeez Ojulari-EDGE

Georgia product Azeez Ojulari has the potential to be one of the biggest steals in the late first round/early second round range in this years draft. He is a very speedy outside linebacker who plays primarily as a pass rusher, and will bolster any defensive front in the NFL. He posted his second consecutive 5.5 sack season in 2020, while going against arguably the top talent in college football each week in the SEC. Georgia’s defense finished second in the SEC, and fifth among power five schools, aided quite a bit by Ojulari’s power of disruption. If the Saints go into the draft in need of a pass rusher, Ojulari might be the best option available without trading up.

2021 Preview

The Saints defensive line may look quite different in 2021. It is likely that two of the top four players in snap count will not return in Trey Hendrickson and Sheldon Rankins. Defensive tackle Malcolm Brown was also released Friday morning in a move aimed to help the team get under the cap.

Defensive line is one of the positions I am seeing mocked to the Saints quite a lot in the 2021 draft, so I would not be surprised if they elect to use their first round pick on a defensive lineman. Two players will decide the fate of the Saints defensive line in 2021, and those two players are Marcus Davenport and David Onyemata. If Davenport can play like the first round pick he is, and Onyemata can maintain the strong performance he turned in in 2020, the Saints defensive line should flourish. Otherwise, Cameron Jordan might be the lone bright spot on what could be a major weakness for the Saints defense.

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