Da Boot Sports!
Article courtesy of Crescent City Sports
By: Les East
The New Orleans Saints are beginning their most significant transition in 15 years.
Drew Brees has retired and a dozen other key players from last year’s team are gone for a variety of reasons.
As the start of the 2021 training camp looms in late July, the four-time defending NFC South champion Saints are still one of the more talented teams in the NFL. Sean Payton is still one of the longest-tenured and most-successful coaches in the league.
But things are changing as New Orleans ventures into the post-Brees era.
Crescent City Sports takes a comprehensive look at this transition in this series as a build-up to the start of training camp.
The defensive line was the New Orleans Saints’ deepest unit in 2020.
It also was the unit that sustained the most attrition during the off-season.
As a result, how well the Saints overcome the losses on the defensive line will be one of the most important factors in their success in 2021.
Gone are end Trey Hendrickson, who led the team with a career-high 13.5 sacks last season and signed with Cincinnati as an unrestricted free agent; tackle Malcolm Brown, who was the most important run defender on the line and was sent to Jacksonville in an economics-driven trade; and tackle Sheldon Rankins, who was mostly a starter for five season before signing with the New York Jets as a free agent.
The Saints’ most significant defensive line acquisition was Payton Turner, the team’s No. 1 draft choice (No. 28) from Houston.
It’s difficult to avoid seeing Turner in the same context as veteran end Marcus Davenport, whom the Saints traded up to select in the first round in 2018.
Davenport, like Turner, played for a non-Power 5 program (Texas-San Antonio).
Davenport, like Turner, was drafted a bit higher (No. 14) than the consensus of draft analysts projected.
Davenport, like Turner, was chosen more for what the Saints envision from him in the NFL than for what he produced in college.
Davenport is listed at 6-foot-6 and 265 pounds, and Turner is listed as 6-6 and 270 pounds.
Defensive end Cameron Jordan called Turner “Marcus Davenport Jr.” and said his 4-year-old daughter told him “Mr. Marcus is here” when Turner visited the Jordans’ home.
After three seasons, the wisdom of the Saints selection of Davenport remains undetermined. He has shown hints of becoming the impact player the Saints expected, but has not done so with any inconsistency – partly because of a series of injuries.
He has missed 11 regular-season games, including five last season, because of injuries. After having a career-high six sacks in 2019 while making 13 of his 14 career starts, he finished with a career-low 1.5 sacks last season. His drop-off coincided with the ascension of Hendrickson at right end.
Davenport said his mental confidence lagged last season, creating hesitancy on his part. So he has focused on changing that this off-season.
“A lot of it’s just been trusting myself more,” he said. “I think it’s just that simple. I’ve seen that I can do a lot of things, and it’s just all about applying. Sometimes, I think as people we forget simple things. I forget that sometimes I can do things quite good.
“I’ve been practicing, I know the moves and I know what to do, and I’ve got coaches here to correct me. So it’s just on me to go out there and do it.”
In April, the Saints exercised the fifth-year option on Davenport for the 2022 season.
Defensive coordinator Dennis Allen noted that this has been Davenport’s most useful off-season after rookie contract negotiations, injury and COVID denied him important off-season work during his first three years.
“You’re beginning to see the light bulb (turn on),” Allen said. “I think we all knew when we drafted Marcus that it was going to take some time for him to develop and I think that development was from the fact that he never had a great opportunity at an off-season program. I think this off-season has been critical for him.”
If the Saints are going to avoid a significant drop-off in productivity from the defensive line this season, they likely are going to need a significant increase in productivity from Davenport, as well as contributions from Turner, who had five sacks in five games as a senior last season.
Jordan remains a fixture at left end, having earned five Pro Bowl selections while becoming the Saints’ No. 2 all-time sack leader (94.5).
Last season, Jordan had just 7.5 sacks after having 15.5 the year before. The drop-off could have been due at least in part to core muscle surgery in early 2020.
“I didn’t have to go under the knife (this off-season),” Jordan said. “I’ll take that.”
Perhaps being another year removed from the surgery will enable him to regain his 2019 form – or perhaps his age (he turns 32 next week) means he is in the early stages of the inevitable descent from the peak of his career.
Carl Granderson enters his third season as a promising backup to Jordan, having made five sacks last season. He joined the team initially as an undrafted free agent and has spent this off-season working on getting stronger, especially in his lower body, and studying film to try and improve his “get-off” as a pass rusher.
“The opportunities will be there for everyone that’s showing up to camp,” Granderson said. “Once I get stronger, I feel like everything I did last season will improve.”
The Saints added a veteran end when they signed former Chief Tanoh Kpassagnon as a free agent. Kpassagnon said the Saints were “super high” on his radar when he realized he wouldn’t be re-signing with Kansas City.
The Saints played the Chiefs last December and Kpassagnon said he was impressed with how the defensive line played.
“I saw how their defensive line especially just got after it,” he said. “You see it with their production on the field, how they stop the run, how they really get after the passer and playing them, seeing that in person really is what made that stick to me.”
Kpassagnon’s said his ability to rush the passer from the outside and the inside made him and the Saints a “perfect fit.”
“Certainly (Hendrickson) played extremely well for us,” head coach Sean Payton said. “It won’t be just one person. There’ll be a series of players that pick up for some of that production.”
The departure of Brown and Rankins left David Onyemata, like Rankins a 2016 draft choice, the leader among the tackles. He had 6.5 of his 16 career sacks last season.
Malcolm Roach and Shy Tuttle figure to move up the depth chart in Brown’s absence, and the Saints have a half dozen other young linemen on hand to compete.
“The addition of some of these younger players to the room has helped,” Payton said. “Certainly, Marcus will be healthy as we get started. (Turner) is doing well training. We feel like with that position group we’ve added some depth.”
Another key returnee is someone the Saints nearly lost.
LSU head coach Ed Orgeron was prepared to hire Saints defensive line coach Ryan Nielsen as his defensive coordinator before Payton invoked a clause in Nielsen’s contract to prevent him from leaving, signed him to a new deal and promoted Nielsen to assistant head coach.
Young players such as Hendrickson, Rankins and Onyemata developed under Nielsen’s tutelage, and those player-development skills will be important as the Saints move forward with a revamped line.
“Coach Nielsen,” Kpassagnon said, “just coming out of college I remember him working me out and how he actually coached and I love the passion and you know he’s going to get the most out of you.”
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