Saints outside linebacker Junior Galette’s emergence as a playmaker in Rob Ryan’s much-improved defense was one of the most eye-opening stories in the NFL in 2013, when Galette finished just a half-sack behind defensive end Cameron Jordan’s team-leading total of 12.5. Another 12-sack season in 2014, along with playing at least 60 percent of the Saints' defensive snaps, would allow the fifth-year veteran to opt out of the final year of his contract and enter free agency in 2015. Galette is one of the glamor pieces in the Saints’ young defensive nucleus, and SI.com’s Don Banks caught up with him Saturday morning during Saints training camp at The Greenbrier resort in White Sulphur Springs, W.Va.
SI.com: That’s quite the beard you’ve got going. That’s more than just a camp beard, isn’t it?
Galette: Yeah, I’ve got to get me a Gillette deal. It’s not a camp beard. It’s something where I started a campaign -- I’m not cutting my beard until we win a Super Bowl. I started it during the 2012 season at some point. I trim it sometimes after the season, but that’s it. It’s not getting cut until we win a ring.
SI.com: So how is training camp spent at a 156-year old mountain resort, rather than the heat of Louisiana?
Galette: Oh, man, it’s night and day. We usually go about five or six reps at a time, and when you’re in New Orleans, by that fourth rep, you’re exhausted. You’re like, man, I have nothing left. Sometimes you get delirious. Like, what’s the call, or your thinking process slows down dramatically. But here, you can go all six reps just balls to the wall. So it gives you an edge to be able to play in top form every single down.
SI.com: You never want training camp to go slowly, but I would imagine you’re not in a hurry to return to New Orleans for the second half of camp?
Galette: I mean, training camp is training camp at the end of the day. Whether it’s in New Orleans or here. You’re just practicing every day and hitting the same guys, and you kind of just want to play as a team. That’s what I’m itching for. But there’s a light at the end of the tunnel in training camp.
SI.com: Can you appreciate how far this defense has come since 2012, from the Saints having the league’s worst defense and setting an NFL record for most yards allowed (7,042) to the talent that’s here now?
Galette: Obviously I was one of the guys that was here and went through that struggle and was one of the worst defenses in the league. And we had players. The year before we had two or three players who went to the Pro Bowl or had been to the Pro Bowl. And we had the same players in 2012. So it really wasn’t who we had as much as just not getting it done.
But obviously you add [safety Jairus] Byrd and Champ [Bailey] to guys like [cornerback] Patrick Robinson coming back -- he’s under the radar, but he’s a first-round pick so I don’t know why he’s under the radar -- and now we get him back [after a patella injury cost him the last 14 games of 2013]. He’s like another terrific addition to the team this year. Then we’ve got [defensive linemen] Cam Jordan and Akiem Hicks, and Hicks is somebody people don’t really know much about, but I feel like he’s a top-tier defensive lineman in the league. We’ve got [defensive end] Tyrunn Walker, too. People don’t really know about these guys, but they’re the ones who create pressure up the middle that give me and Cam a lot more room off the edge.
SI.com: If this secondary is as good as it looks on paper, is it the pass rush that could really benefit the most from having coverage that hangs in there just a little longer?
Galette: In the National Football League, a half-second makes that much of a difference, between you knocking a ball down or just having your hand up in the quarterback’s face. Obviously that’s critical. The way our back end played last year helped us a lot, and now it’s even better. We help them out and they help us out. It’s mutual.
SI.com: You kind of broke through last season, but is a 12-sack season just scratching the surface? Where’s your ceiling as a pass rusher?
Galette: Kind of? I don’t think it was kind of. My ceiling definitely hasn’t been reached, but I think I broke through. But I’m not satisfied with what we did last year because that wasn’t enough to get me a ring on my finger. Or our fingers. And that’s the ultimate goal. If you have passion for this game, you want to be on top of the mountain at the end of the year. So whether it’s getting 12 sacks again or getting 20 sacks, whatever the number is, all we’re in it for is to get to the top of the mountain.
SI.com: Are you glad your salary doesn’t depend on being able to stop Saints rookie receiver Brandin Cooks on game days?
Galette: That guy, I hope people are sleeping on him. When we hit the regular season, I hope the Atlanta Falcons are sleeping on him. The guy’s a beast. He just has to go out there in a game and do what he’s been doing so far in practice. I haven’t seen anybody as explosive as him in the five years I’ve been in the league.
SI.com: Does this defense now know it can hold up its end of the deal with the Saints having one of the NFL’s best offenses year after year?
Galette: Last year we didn’t take the ball away enough. You can blame the playoff loss at Seattle on us. We have to do better taking the ball away. We had improvement last year, but there’s a lot more room for improvement this season when it comes to taking the ball away. I was here through the struggle and I know how much we’ve improved from that, but we have more to do. There are guys here that played on the 2009 team and have rings and that’s what we want.
I think we were 29th in the league in takeaways last year [14th in turnover ratio], and that’s unacceptable. Seattle had about 39 takeaways last year, and we had about 19 or some pitiful number. We have to take the ball away, and with the talent we have on defense there’s no reason we shouldn’t raise that number considerably.