Saints defensive line in transition, but should be very good
(Fourth in a series)
METAIRIE – The New Orleans Saints defensive line figures to be significantly better at the end of next season that it will be at the beginning.
And it should be pretty good to start with.
But a series of factors will require a transition period that began during the off-season program, will continue during training camp and the preseason and will extend into the regular season.
First there were two significant losses in free agency as starting end Alex Okafor signed with Kansas City and starting tackle Tyeler Davison signed with Atlanta.
Secondly, starting tackle Sheldon Rankins is likely to miss the early part of the season as he recovers from a torn Achilles suffered in the divisional playoff victory against Philadelphia, and his primary backup, David Onyemata, will serve a one-game suspension to start the season because he violated the NFL policy on substance abuse.
That means players such as end Marcus Davenport, last year’s No. 1 draft choice who’s expected to replace Okafor in the starting lineup, and veteran free-agent signees Malcom Brown, Mario Edwards Jr. and Wes Horton, all will be establishing themselves.
When all is said and done, the Saints will have a lot of versatility with several players that can play inside and outside in a three-man or a four-man front.
“We’ve got a lot of guys from vets to young players that can play a lot of different positions,” defensive line coach Ryan Nielsen said. “That’s a good thing to have. They’re pretty smart so they can pick some stuff up.
“We can move an end inside or play a three-man line because those guys are pretty good with fundamentals and technique. That’s definitely something we’ll be able to do this year.”
The main thing that hasn’t changed is that Pro Bowl end Cameron Jordan is the anchor of the line.
“I think he’s one of the better defensive ends, run and pass,” head coach Sean Payton said of Jordan, who recently signed a three-year, $52.5 million contract extension. “He’s one of the leaders. We go back to the ‘11 draft when we took him. I think, number one, you lead with your performance and work on the field. He’s one of those guys that’s in great shape. He trains hard. I think it starts with the way he prepares.”
The Saints traded up in the first round of the 2018 draft to take Davenport with the expectation that he would provide an effective complement to Jordan at end. Davenport showed flashes as a rookie as to why the Saints thought so highly of him even as he was limited by a foot injury that required off-season surgery.
“There were a handful of games last year where he played extremely well,” Payton said. “He battled an injury and now he’s healthy. So I think he’s eager to continue to make those steps that you typically make between year one, year two and year three.”
Nielsen said he can see Davenport’s evolution in terms of “strength, maturity and football IQ” since last season.
“He’s a year older, another year stronger, bigger, everything, so you definitely can see a big difference,” Nielsen added.
Davenport said his goal is “to be better in every way.”
“Setbacks are for great comebacks,” he added.
Defensive line: Cameron Jordan, Sheldon Rankins, Malcolm Brown, Marcus Davenport, David Onyemata, Mario Edwards Jr., Taylor Stallworth, Wes Horton, Trey Handrickson, Carl Granderson, Geneo Grissom, Corbin Kaufusi, Shy Tuttle, Kenny Bigelow Jr., Sylvester Williams.
Departures: Alex Okafor, Tyeler Davison, Jay Bromley, Tyrunn Walker
Returning: Jordan, Rankins, Davenport, Onyemata, Stallworth, Hendrickson
Arrivals: Brown, Edwards, Horton, Granderson, Grissom, Kaufusi, Tuttle, Bigelow, Williams
Projected starters: Jordan, Rankins, Edwards, Davenport
Training camp storyline: It’s up to Davenport to show that he’s ready to start in his second season. It’s up to Onyemata, Stallworth and the other tackles to show that collectively they can pick up the slack created by Rankins’ early-season absence. And it’s up to Brown, Edwards and Horton to show that they can find roles as newcomers on a unit that was very solid last season but has some job openings. If any of them falter, it could save Hendrickson’s job or create an opening for a youngster such as Granderson or Tuttle.
Quotable: Defensive line coach Ryan Nielsen on DE Cameron Jordan’s impact on his fellow linemen: “He’s a played a lot of football, had a lot of success. The guys look up to him. He’s done a good job on the field and in the meeting room of leading, not only verbally but by example. He’s out there doing the drills with as much intensity as one of the young guys and these guys see him doing that and they emulate him and you can see the success that they’re having just by watching him.”
This is the latest installment of Crescent City Sports’ comprehensive Saints training camp preview. Here is the schedule for the unit-by-unit overviews:
June 27: Offensive line
July 4: Defensive line
July 11: Linebackers
July 18: Secondary (cornerbacks and safeties)
July 25: Special teams (kicker, punter, long snappers)
The Saints are scheduled to report to their Metairie headquarters on Thursday, July 25 and begin training-camp practice the next day.
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Les East is a nationally renowned freelance journalist. His blog on SportsNOLA.com was named “Best Sports Blog” in 2016 by the Press Club of New Orleans. For 2013 he was named top sports columnist in the United States by the Society of Professional Journalists and Louisiana Sportswriter of the Year by the National Sportscasters and Sportswriters Association. You can follow…