Saints training camp countdown Part 4: the defensive line
METAIRIE – The New Orleans Saints’ defensive line is the deepest area of the team.
It led the way for a very good defense and a winning team in 2021.
If it emerges as one of the elite groups in the NFL, the Saints could go from a playoff contender to a Super Bowl contender in 2022.
The key to just how good the line is – and therefore one of the most important storylines in the upcoming training camp and preseason – is whether a pair of former No. 1 draft choices – Marcus Davenport and Payton Turner – stay healthy and blossom into special players at end.
Both seem to have skills that explain why the Saints were eager to get them, but both have been held back by injury.
Davenport is entering his fifth season and Turner is entering his second. Davenport has missed 17 games, including a career-high six last season, due to various injuries. He had five surgeries during the off-season to fix shoulder and finger injuries, including the partial amputation of the pinky on his left hand.
Turner missed 12 games last season due to multiple injuries. He was limited during offseason work due to shoulder surgery, but announced recently that he is fully cleared.
Both Davenport and Turner should be full participants when training camp begins at the end of the month and have an opportunity to show where they’re at during the preseason.
“I had a long off-season, longer than most,” Turner said during OTAs last month. “The bar is always very high for first-round picks and people expect a lot, but I don’t think people can expect more of me than I can. I think getting into a routine (in training camp) is going to be helpful for me.”
The Saints line is still anchored by another end that was a No. 1 draft choice – Cameron Jordan, who has 107 sacks (second to Rickey Jackson in team history) and seven Pro Bowl selections since entering the league in 2011.
Jordan saw his sack total drop by half (a career-high 15.5-7.5) from the 2019 season to the 2020 season and got off to a sub-par start, at least by his own lofty standard, last season. But he looked liked he was still in his prime down the stretch last season (finishing with 12.5 sacks), although he turns 33 years old on Sunday.
The Saints have effective ends beyond even the top three of Jordan, Davenport and Turner.
They got exceptional value in an undrafted free agent when they signed Carl Granderson four years ago, they added former Chief Tanoh Kpassagnon as a free agent before last season and picked up Taco Charlton, who’s joining his fifth team in six seasons, as a free agent this offseason.
The organization has zeroed in on a prototype for defensive ends. They favor tall, lanky athletic ends with the strength and versatility to move inside in specialty packages.
The ends rage in height from 6-foot-4 to 6-7, averaging 6-5.5. They range in weight from 261 pounds to 289, averaging 274 pounds.
“It starts with a body type – a prototypical type that the Saints like,” said defensive line coach Ryan Nielsen, who’s sharing coordinator duties with secondary coach Kris Richard. “These guys fit that mold and we’ve had success with this type of guys in that mold. We’ve been able to move them around a little bit. With free agency and the draft we want to stay right in line with that mold of guy that we’ve got.
“You look at our defensive end position – they’re big, they’re long, they’re tall. They can play different spots because they are that type.”
The Saints added depth behind David Onyemata, Shy Tuttle and Malcolm Roach at tackle by signing Kentavius Street, Jaleel Johnson and Josh Black as well as drafting Jordan Jackson in the sixth round.
So, defensive line will be one of the most competitive areas on the team this summer.
Some of the most difficult cuts for head coach Dennis Allen will come on the line because it features more NFL-caliber players than the Saints can accommodate on the roster.
Projected starters: DE Cameron Jordan, DT David Onyemata, DT Shy Tuttle, DE Marcus Davenport
Arrivals: DE Taco Charlton (FA), DT Kentavius Street (FA), DT Jaleel Johnson (FA), DT Jordan Jackson (D-7), DT Josh Black (UDFA)
Other returning players: DE Payton Turner, DE Tanoh Kpassagnon, DT Albert Huggins, DE Carl Granderson, DL Malcolm Roach
Notable departures: DL Christian Ringo, DE Jaylyn Holmes DE Ethan Westbrooks
Roster spots: 10-12
To read all of the pre-training camp analysis on the countdown, click here.
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Les East is a nationally renowned freelance journalist. The New Orleans area native’s 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. He has since become a valued contributor for CCS. The Jesuit High…