From 2012 to 2016, outside of 2013, the New Orleans Saints had one of the worst defenses in the National Football League, setting historical marks for futility. One of the lone bright spots on this abysmal unit was defensive end Cameron Jordan, who has been one of the league's best defensive players since coming to the franchise as a first-round choice in the 2011 draft. For years, the Saints unsuccessfully tried to surround Jordan with the talent to upgrade the defense.
Over the last four years, the team brought in defensive stars like David Onyemata, Demario Davis, Marshon Lattimore, and Chauncey Gardner-Johnson along with complementary pieces like Sheldon Rankins, Trey Hendrickson, Marcus Davenport, Janoris Jenkins, Malcolm Jenkins, and Marcus Williams. Those additions allowed New Orleans to build one of the league's best defenses.
A stout front line, active defensive backfield, and a fearsome pass rush helped the Saints to force the third-most turnovers in the league and hold a top-five ranking in most major defensive categories. New Orleans had 45 sacks and 113 QB hits in 2020, among the highest in the league. Much of that disruption came from their defensive ends, where Jordan was a complementary piece rather than the defense's lone playmaker.
Today we look back at the defensive end spot as we continue our postseason position grades.
Cam Jordan was voted to his fourth straight Pro Bowl bid, the sixth such honor in his ten-year career. It was a statistically down year for the 31-Yr old defensive end, as he finished with 7.5 sacks, 26 pressures, 16 QB hits, and 11 tackles for loss. He got off to a poor start to the year and was uncharacteristically silent in one-on-one matchups at times. Jordan has an explosive burst around the edge and excellent strength to bull-rush linemen, making him equally effective as a pass rusher and run defender.
Jordan is still one of the team’s defensive centerpieces and one of the league's best all-around defensive players. However, he carries a high cap number into 2021 on a team projected to be well over the salary cap. The Saints aren't likely to release their long-time star, but it could be a possibility if they cannot reach a restructured deal.
The Saints traded up in the 2018 draft to select DE Marcus Davenport with the 14th overall pick, hoping to add a lethal edge complement to Jordan. Davenport has flashed the potential of a star, but injuries and inconsistencies have plagued his three-year career. The 24-Yr old end missed the first four games of this year with an ankle injury and had 17 pressures and 8 QB hits but only 1.5 sacks and 3 tackles for loss in 11 games.
Blessed with incredible natural ability, Davenport's impact on a game doesn't always show up on a stat sheet. He often draws double-team blocking on the edge, freeing up other teammates to make plays. Still, given his draft status and likely changes to this position in the offseason, Davenport must produce at a higher level. The Saints must decide this offseason on whether to pick up the fifth-year option on his contract for 2022.
A third-round choice in the 2017 draft, Trey Hendrickson came into the 2020 season with three-year TOTALS of 6.5 sacks, 18 QB hits, 39 pressures, and 6 tackles for loss. In a breakout 2020 campaign, Hendrickson led the Saints with 13.5 sacks, 25 QB hits, 33 pressures, and 12 tackles for loss. He had a sack in ten of his fifteen outings and was the most consistently productive player on the New Orleans defense.
That Hendrickson burst into national prominence as he enters unrestricted free agency will probably earn him a huge payday with his next contract. With salary cap issues and quality depth up front, it seems likely that the Saints won't be able to afford their breakout star.
The development of second-year DE Carl Granderson has helped make Hendrickson somewhat expendable. An undrafted rookie from Wyoming in 2019, he flashed potential after missing the first half of that year with legal issues. In 2020, Granderson had 5 sacks, 9 QB hits, 11 pressures, and 3 tackles for loss. He was extremely productive down the stretch, collecting 4 of his sacks and 9 QB hits over the last four games.
Granderson has outstanding length and bend around the edge and showed improvement against the run, exhibiting the traits and ability of a starter. Rookie 3rd round pick Zack Baun projects as a linebacker, but will also be a factor as a potential edge rusher on passing downs.
One major key to the success of the New Orleans defense was the dominance of their front seven. A fierce pass rush was a big reason for the rise of their pass defense to the top of the league. Questions about Jordan's contract and Hendrickson's pending free agency surround the unit heading into the offseason. Regardless of what happens, the Saints still have the depth and talent to pressure opposing passers and dominate the edge in 2021. A defensive end position more talented than any other time in franchise history was a crucial part of an elite Saints defense.