The New Orleans Saints entered this off-season with a clear need to acquire more pass rushing talent. The defense recorded 42 sacks in 2017, a significant improvement from their 30 sacks in 2016. Despite this feat, the Saints pass rush lacked consistent pressure, aside from All-Pro selection Cameron Jordan. This issue became even more pronounced when starting right defensive end Alex Okafor suffered a season-ending injury in week 11.
New Orleans has spent years seeking a pass rushing counterpart for Jordan with Okafor being the latest attempt at a solution. This year, they took a drastic measure in the draft to address the issue. The Saints traded away their 2018 first and fifth-round picks and their 2019 first rounder to acquire the 14th overall pick and selected Marcus Davenport; a near-unanimous top-three edge prospect.
Regardless of how Davenport performs in 2018, there’s no doubt New Orleans did their best to add another pass rusher to the mix. However, there’s still a concern with run defense as well. The Saints allowed 4.4 yards per carry last season, which ranked 27th among NFL defenses. Of course, the blame here doesn’t fall solely on the defensive ends, but someone outside of Jordan has to step up in this area as well.
New Orleans Saints 2018 Defensive End Breakdown
Last season, Jordan solidified himself as the best player not named Drew Brees on the Saints roster. He earned his first ever All-Pro selection after compiling 48 tackles, 13 sacks, and an interception for a touchdown. Jordan also broke up 11 pass attempts; an incredible feat for a defensive lineman. He was the Saints most consistently disruptive force on defense in 2017.
The only issue, as mentioned in the intro is getting Jordan some help. In some games, it seemed impossible for New Orleans to get consistent quarterback pressure without blitzing, especially after Okafor’s injury. For years now, Jordan’s also been the Saints best run stopper on the defensive line. This forces New Orleans to keep their most productive defender on the field on nearly every snap.
In 2017, Jordan played 95 percent or more defensive snaps in eight regular-season games, including 100 percent in six of those games. Compare that to Minnesota Vikings defensive end Everson Griffen, a player with similar age and skills. Griffen is one of the Vikings most important defenders, yet he never played more than 94.3 of snaps in a game last season.
Over-playing leads to higher injury risk and increased fatigue late in the game when defensive ends are often expected to make game-sealing pressures and sacks. The Saints need Jordan as fresh and healthy as possible to contend for the Super Bowl next season, but that will require a breakout season from at least one of the following players.
In his first season with the Saints, Okafor quickly proved to be an improvement over the likes of Paul Krueger and Daryl Tapp, who played right defensive end in 2016. In 10 games, Okafor recorded 43 total tackles (five for losses), 4.5 sacks, and two forced fumbles. The fact that Okafor still finished tied for second in sacks despite missing six games further highlights the lack of pass rushing options last season.
Despite Okafor’s Achilles tear, which can be a devastating injury for defensive linemen, New Orleans opted to bring him back on a two-year deal. Okafor’s play earned him another chance in New Orleans, but availability has to be a major concern at this point. Okafor still has yet to play a full season in the NFL, falling victim to a variety of injuries during his five-year career.
Okafor is likely to start at right defensive end again in 2018. Rookie Trey Hendrickson showed promise last season, but he doesn’t appear far enough in his development to win the job over Okafor. Davenport will also compete, but he’s still raw and will likely play a situational pass rusher role in his first season. While the starting job is his to lose, Okafor still needs to prove he can return to his 2017 form and stay off the injury report.
The shocking trade to draft Davenport led to mixed reactions among Saints fans. New Orleans was once notorious for failed first-round trades after giving up multiple picks for Ricky Williams in 1999, and Johnathan Sullivan in 2003. The difference this time around is that New Orleans entered the draft with few glaring needs and had the luxury of making an aggressive move.
By all accounts, Davenport should be worth the risk. He was widely graded as the second-best edge defender in the draft (behind NC State’s Bradley Chubb) after recording 8.5 sacks and an incredible 17.5 tackles for loss as a senior at UTSA. New Orleans didn’t make this trade on a whim either, contacting other teams about trading up for Davenport weeks before the draft.
Davenport may take time adjusting the pro level after playing in Conference USA, which doesn’t exactly boast a wealth of NFL-quality talent. With that said, New Orleans will surely plug Davenport in whenever possible. Even if he starts out as a situational pass rusher, Davenport could still play 50 percent or more defensive snaps in a given game. If he proves successful at holding the edge on run plays early on, he’ll earn even more snaps.
Hendrickson was a third-round pick just a year ago and the Saints primary backup at defensive end in 2017, yet he’s already at risk of losing significant playing time to Davenport. Hendrickson proved to be a strong, gritty defensive end last season, but those qualities may not hold up against Davenport’s raw, flashy athleticism. He’s likely a better run defender at this point though, and should still be Jordan’s immediate backup.
Following Okafor’s injury, New Orleans started defensive tackle Sheldon Rankins at right defensive end rather than plugging Hendrickson in. That decision indicated a lack of faith in Hendrickson, but it doesn’t represent the Saints long-term view of him. Hendrickson is under contract for three more years and will get plenty more opportunities, but he needs to show growth this season to prevent his role from shrinking.
2015 second-round pick Hau’oli Kikaha has played frequently at outside linebacker but has always been a better fit at edge defender. He’s shown some promise rushing the passer with eight sacks in 27 games from various positions. However, injuries caused Kikaha to miss all of 2016 along with six regular and postseason games last season.
Kikaha is entering a contract year and faces the risk of missing the roster altogether this season. With an improved linebacking corps, the Saints no longer need him there and his skills are limited at defensive end. Davenport’s presence will take significant time from Kikaha on passing downs. Kikaha’s experience and moderate success should help him make the roster again, but he faces strong competition below him.
It’s a wide-open competition for the remaining spots. One dark-horse candidate is journeyman George Johnson. Johnson was signed last December following the rash of injuries at defensive end and made some solid contributions. By the end of the month, Johnson had compiled 2.5 sacks and a forced fumble. At age 30, Johnson needs to prove last December wasn’t a fluke, and make an impact during the preseason.
Al-Quadin Muhammad, a 2017 seventh-round pick could be ready for a larger role in year two. Muhammad turned heads last preseason with nine tackles and four sacks, but he only played 24 defensive snaps in the regular season. If it weren’t for all the injuries around him, he might not have seen the field at all. If Muhammad has another strong preseason, coaches will have no choice but to add him to the rotation.
Undrafted free agent Mitchell Loewen also played well last preseason and earned playing time in the Saints first two regular season games. Unfortunately, he was injured in week two and placed on injured reserve. Loewen faces better competition this year, but it wouldn’t be surprising if he sneaks onto the roster again.
Alex Jenkins will surely return a member of the International Pathway Players program. This program allows Jenkins to exist on the 90-man roster or 10-man practice squad without counting towards the official total on either unit. As a long-term, developmental project Jenkins is unlikely to see any regular season action.
The Saints have spent years trying to solidify this position and it’s finally paying off. Davenport is their most promising defensive line prospect in recent memory, and he joins a respectable duo in Jordan and Okafor. There will be a fierce battle lower on the depth chart between a mixed bag of hungry underdogs.
With all of the perceived talent at defensive end, there’s still the question of who will step up opposite Jordan. Okafor has the most experience, but will he look the same after the Achilles tear? Can Davenport make the immediate impact the Saints are hoping for, and can Hendrickson earn their trust in year two? Will Kikaha ever live up to his second-round pick status?
Despite these lingering questions, New Orleans accomplished their goal this off-season. They went all-in on a widely respected prospect and greatly improved their chances of improving the pass rush. This should be one of the most interesting Saints positions to watch in 2018, regardless of how the depth comes together.