Saints training camp previews: Davenport expected to help raise level of defensive line
(This is Part 5 of a seven-part series previewing the Saints position by position heading into training camp.)
Position: Defensive line (17)
Alex Okafor (DE), Tyeler Davison (DT), Sheldon Rankins (DT), Cameron Jordan (DE)
Marcus Davenport (DE), Hau’oli Kikaha (DE), George Johnson (DE), Trey Hendrickson (DE), Al-Quadin Muhammad (DE), Alex Jenkins (DE)
David Onyemata (DT), Henry Mondeaux (DT), Devaroe Lawrence (DT), Taylor Stallworth (DT), Woodrow Hamilton IV (DT), Jay Bromley (DT)
Mitchell Loewen (DL)
Overview: The defensive line, like the defense as a whole, was much improved last season, but the Saints felt like it needed to be even better if they’re going to advance farther this season. That’s why they paid a high price (including next year’s No. 1 draft choice) to move up 13 spots in this year’s first round and draft Davenport from Texas-San Antonio. They hope that Davenport, who’s big, athletic and smart, can have an immediate impact and provide a productive bookend to join Jordan, a Pro Bowl defensive end. New Orleans has other effective ends in Okafor and Kikaha, as well as promising second-year players in Hendrickson and Muhammad, providing a deep rotation. A trio of young tackles — Davison, Rankins and Onyemata — was solid last season, but the depth inside is suspect.
Starters at the end of 2017: Hendrickson, Davison, Rankins, Jordan
Other returning players: Okafor, Kikaha, Johnson, Muhammad, Jenkins, Onyemata, Lawrence, Loewen
Subtractions: Nick Fairley (DT), Tony McDaniel (DT), David Parry (DT)
Additions: Davenport, Mondeaux, Stallworth, Hamilton, Bromley
Player to watch: Davenport
Game plan: To get Davenport ready to contribute from the right side as a complement to Jordan and develop greater depth across the line. Training camp and the preseason games will provide an opportunity for the young players to demonstrate that they’re capable of handling significant roles. Jordan (foot surgery) and Okafor (Achilles surgery) won’t be pushed, creating more opportunities for the younger players. Davenport will command the most attention and he’ll be given every opportunity to earn a starting position on the right side at some point, ideally by the season opener. Johnson was solid as an in-season acquisition last season and could provide experience to a young group. Though Hendrickson and Muhammad both showed potential as rookies, it will be difficult for both to make the team again. There’s a lot of uncertainty behind the top three tackles, but there’s versatility among the ends and New Orleans has flexibility when it uses its nickel and dime schemes.
Quote to note: “We’ve got a bunch of guys that can play in the rotation with all the defensive tackle and defensive end combinations we have right now. It’s exciting to put those guys out there and see how they play together in pass-rush situations. Our depth is definitely better than it was last year. We’ve got good depth guys that can play. Cam can go inside and rush, Sheldon can go outside and play defensive end on first and second down and Alex Okafor can play inside and outside in pass-rush situations. We’ll keep fine tuning the fundamentals and technique and who’s working well together before we get to the first game.” –Defensive line coach Ryan Nielsen on his position’s outlook.
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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…