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Ex-Saints to Play a Big Role in Divisional Round

Several former New Orleans players are in a position to have a big impact in the NFL Playoffs Divisional Round.
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The New Orleans Saints missed the postseason for the first time since 2016. Some fans of the team have boycotted watching playoff games altogether. Most continue to watch the games, either rooting for, or against, specific teams.

It's human nature when watching sports to develop a rooting interest, even if your own favorite team isn't involved. If you're a Saints fan, like me, you've developed a personal hatred for the Green Bay Packers, San Francisco 49ers, Los Angeles Rams, and Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

Since it's obviously impossible for all four teams in the NFC Divisional Round to lose, maybe a Saints fan turns their interest to the AFC. The Kansas City Chiefs can be a fun team to watch, unless you dislike Patrick Mahomes.

The Tennessee Titans play old-school football, and dominant RB Derrick Henry, if healthy, is a sight to behold. The Buffalo Bills and their four Super Bowl losses may tug at your heart strings if you're a nostalgic fan.

Many Saints fans have adopted the Cincinnati Bengals. They are led by Joe Burrow, the Heisman Trophy winning quarterback of 2019 National Champion LSU. Cincinnati just snapped a 31-year streak without a postseason win.

A hardcore Saints fan may root for former players of their team. Each of the four remaining AFC teams have ex-Saints that helped New Orleans to a great run of success from 2017 to 2020.

TENNESSEE TITANS

Tennessee Titans cornerback Janoris Jenkins (20)
New Orleans Saints cornerback Janoris Jenkins (20)

KANSAS CITY CHIEFS

Raiders quarterback Derek Carr (4) is sacked by Kansas City Chiefs defensive end Alex Okafor (97). Mandatory Credit: Denny Medley-USA TODAY

Raiders quarterback Derek Carr (4) is sacked by Kansas City Chiefs defensive end Alex Okafor (97). Mandatory Credit: Denny Medley-USA TODAY

  • Michael Burton, FB
  • Alex Okafor, DE

Michael Burton played for three teams between 2015 and 2019 before signing with the Saints in 2020. He served as the lead blocker for New Orleans backs Alvin Kamara and Latavius Murray last season.

Burton had just 7 carries for 18 yards and 4 receptions for 28 yards in 15 games for the Saints in 2020. However, his hard-nosed blocking helped New Orleans finish sixth in the league in rushing yardage.

After signing a free-agent deal with the Chiefs this offseason, Burton has served a similar role. He's had just 11 offensive touches for 57 yards, but scored his first career touchdown in a Week 15 win over the Chargers.

Oct 15, 2017; Detroit Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford (9) fumbles after being hit by New Orleans Saints defensive end Alex Okafor (57). Mandatory Credit: Chuck Cook-USA TODAY Sports

Oct 15, 2017; Detroit Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford (9) fumbles after being hit by New Orleans Saints defensive end Alex Okafor (57). Mandatory Credit: Chuck Cook-USA TODAY Sports

A fourth-round selection in the 2013 NFL Draft by the Cardinals, Okafor played four years in Arizona before joining the Saints as a free agent in 2017.

Okafor started 26 games in two seasons with New Orleans. He had 8.5 sacks, 21 QB hits, 3 fumbles forced or recovered, and 11 tackles for loss.

Okafor signed a free-agent deal with the Kansas City Chiefs after the 2018 season. He's been a key reserve in his three years with the team, the first two ending in a Super Bowl berth. Okafor was injured for their 2019 title run, but has appeared in 38 of 49 regular season contests.

In three seasons with the Chiefs, Okafor has 9.5 sacks, 38 pressures, and six tackles for loss. He has 1.5 sacks and 13 pressures for a Kansas City defense that ranks 8th in points allowed this season.

BUFFALO BILLS

Buffalo Bills receiver Emmanuel Sanders catches a 34 yard touchdown pass against the Patriots Jamie Germano / USA TODAY NETWORK

Buffalo Bills receiver Emmanuel Sanders catches a 34 yard touchdown pass against the Patriots Jamie Germano / USA TODAY NETWORK

  • A.J. Klein, LB
  • Emmanuel Sanders, WR

Klein spent the first four years of his career as a reserve linebacker with the Carolina Panthers. He signed with New Orleans in 2017 and helped strengthen a linebacking corps that had been a team weakness.

In three seasons with the Saints from 2017 to 2019, Klein had 6.5 sacks, 12 QB hits, 18 tackles for loss, an interception, and 4 fumbles forced or recovered. He signed with the Buffalo Bills as a free agent in 2020. There he was reunited with head coach Sean McDermott, his defensive coordinator in Carolina.

Klein's heady play, outstanding run defense, and underrated pass defense has continued with the Bills. In two seasons with Buffalo, he has missed just two games despite a reduction in playing time this year.

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Klein's time with the Bills has produced an interception, 9 passes broken up, 4 fumbles forced or recovered, 5 sacks, 10 QB hits, and 10 tackles for loss. He's been a strong rotational player for a Buffalo defense ranked first in total yards, points allowed, and passing yards.

Oct 4, 2020; New Orleans Saints receiver Emmanuel Sanders (17) after a catch against Detroit cornerback Desmond Trufant (23). Mandatory Credit: Raj Mehta-USA TODAY 

Oct 4, 2020; New Orleans Saints receiver Emmanuel Sanders (17) after a catch against Detroit cornerback Desmond Trufant (23). Mandatory Credit: Raj Mehta-USA TODAY 

Emmanuel Sanders was a productive receiver for ten years with the Steelers, Broncos, and 49ers before signing with the Saints last season.

Sanders was expected to be the perfect complement for All-Pro New Orleans WR Michael Thomas. However, he was thrust into a prominent role after Thomas suffered a major ankle injury. Sanders had three outings of at least 80 yards and was second on the team with 61 receptions for 726 yards and 5 touchdowns.

Released after just one season with New Orleans, Sanders signed a deal with Buffalo. As a complementary piece of the Bills fifth ranked offense, Sanders caught 42 passes for 626 yards and 4 scores.

CINCINNATI BENGALS

Bengals defensive end Trey Hendrickson (91) causes a sack and fumble of Raiders quarterback Derek Carr (4) an AFC wild-card playoff game. Mandatory Credit: Kareem Elgazzar-USA TODAY Sports

Bengals defensive end Trey Hendrickson (91) causes a sack and fumble of Raiders quarterback Derek Carr (4) an AFC wild-card playoff game. Mandatory Credit: Kareem Elgazzar-USA TODAY Sports

  • Eli Apple, CB
  • Vonn Bell, S
  • Trey Hendrickson, DE
Dec 17, 2018; Carolina Panthers receiver D.J. Moore (12) is tackled by New Orleans Saints cornerback Eli Apple (25) and safety Vonn Bell (24). Mandatory Credit: Jim Dedmon-USA TODAY Sports

Dec 17, 2018; Carolina Panthers receiver D.J. Moore (12) is tackled by New Orleans Saints cornerback Eli Apple (25) and safety Vonn Bell (24). Mandatory Credit: Jim Dedmon-USA TODAY Sports

Eli Apple was the Number 10 overall pick of the 2016 NFL Draft by the New York Giants out of Ohio State. After two uneven seasons with the Giants, Apple was traded to New Orleans five games into the 2018 season.

Reunited with his Ohio State teammates Michael Thomas, Marshon Lattimore, and Vonn Bell, Apple provided strong coverage for the Saints defense in 2018. He intercepted 2 passes, broke up nine others, and allowed 44.7% completion rate against his coverage that season.

Apple's play regressed in his second year with New Orleans in 2019. He was flagged for several penalties and allowed over 63% completion percentage while not recording an interception. The Saints did not re-sign him after the 2019 season. He'd appear in just two contests as a reserve for the Panthers in 2020.

Apple landed with the Bengals this offseason. He'd start 15 games for an 18th ranked Cincinnati defense while intercepting 2 passes, breaking up 10 others, and allowing 60% completion percentage when targeted.

New Orleans drafted Vonn Bell in the second round of the 2016 NFL Draft out of Ohio State. Bell played 66 of 69 games for the Saints over the next four years. He had at least 83 tackles in all four seasons, recording 14 stops for loss, 8 sacks, 17 QB hits, recovering or forcing 14 fumbles, and intercepting one pass while breaking up 14 others.

Bell was signed in free agency by the Bengals in 2020. He led Cincinnati in tackles that season with a career-high 114 stops while forcing three fumbles and recovering two others.

Jessie Bates and Bell combined for one of the league's best safety tandems for the Bengals this year. Bell was second on the team with 97 tackles, including five for loss. He also had an interception, broke up 8 passes, forced 3 fumbles, and recorded a half sack.

Sep 29, 2019; former New Orleans Saints defensive end Trey Hendrickson (91) rushes against the Dallas Cowboys. Mandatory Credit: Chuck Cook-USA TODAY Sports

Sep 29, 2019; former New Orleans Saints defensive end Trey Hendrickson (91) rushes against the Dallas Cowboys. Mandatory Credit: Chuck Cook-USA TODAY Sports

Trey Hendrickson was a third-round pick by the Saints in their famed 2017 draft that also netted Lattimore, RT Ryan Ramczyk, S Marcus Williams, and RB Alvin Kamara. He was a role player in his first three years with New Orleans, recording 6.5 sacks and 18 QB hits in 30 games.

Hendrickson had a monster breakout year for the Saints in 2020. He led the team with a career-high 13.5 sacks, 25 QB hits, and 12 tackles in loss in 15 starts.

Hendrickson parlayed his big season into a huge free-agent deal with the Bengals this offseason. He'd prove that his breakout wasn't a fluke by being a disruptive force for Cincinnati. Hendrickson bested his career-best marks by leading the Bengals with 14 sacks, 27 QB hits, and 12 tackles for loss.

Cincinnati QB Joe Burrow, stud rookie WR Ja'Marr Chase, and an explosive offense have grabbed the headlines during the Bengals playoff run. Hendrickson, Bell, and Apple have been crucial pieces for a playmaking Cincinnati defense.

Other ex-Saints have played key complementary roles for Tennessee, Kansas City, and especially Buffalo. New Orleans fans may not have their team to cheer for during these playoffs.

However, besides spreading dislike among the remaining four NFC teams, some Saints fans could root for a former one of their own to have an impact in the AFC playoffs.

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