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The defensive end battle in Saints training camp will be one to watch

If you asked me what the Saints #1 need was this offseason – I would have said “add a difference making pass rusher”. Not only did they not do that, they lost Nick Fairley. I think, sadly, the pass rush took a step back this offseason and it wasn’t exactly good to begin with. But we don’t know that for sure. There’s a lot of young bodies and we’re not sure what the Saints have in them. Someone will need to step up to make a difference. And if that’s going to happen, it has to start with edge pressure. And sure, Dannell Ellerbe (when healthy) will have a role in helping there too as a blitzing linebacker. That said, the cast of characters are very interesting if nothing else:

Cam Jordan – Clearly the best thing we have going. It would be nice if there was more threats off the edge so he would garner less attention.

Alex Okafor – I hesitated in saying the Saints didn’t add a difference making pass rusher because of him. He’s probably not a difference maker, but he’s a pretty good player. I expect him to make the team and start opposite Jordan if he can stay healthy. That’s proven to be a big if so far in his career, though.

Hau’oli Kikaha – I really don’t know what to expect from him. As a rookie he was one of the most exciting defensive prospects I’ve seen in the Sean Payton. Maybe the most exciting. Then he had the ACL, his third ever. He could come back to being promising or his career could be over. I have no idea. It’ll be a lot of fun if he’s back and healthy, though. I love this guy.

Obum Gwacham – He’s explosive off the edge. That’s the one thing he has going for him, but it makes him a candidate as the sub edge rusher on 3rd down. He was hurt last year but you can’t count him out based on his edge speed.

Trey Hendrickson – The third round pick. I love his tape… I just wonder if his body type and measurables will cut it at the NFL level. I think he’s close to maxed out his potential so he could make an impact immediately but I don’t know how much better he gets. At the end of the day I just think this is the type of guy you have to have on a 53 man roster because he’ll do anything you ask and be exemplary as a teammate.

Al-Quadin Muhammad – He’s kind of the exact opposite of Hendrickson. His body type and measurables are great and he hasn’t scratched the surface of his ceiling. But, he’s got a checkered past and low production in college. You couldn’t make up a write up more opposite than Hendrickson with Muhammad. I expect him to be cut, but it’ll be interesting to see if he makes the decision hard with a good camp and his head on his shoulders.

Darryl Tapp – The Saints like his versatility and positional flexibility. He can interior rush a bit in pass situations and he sets the edge well on running downs. He’s a serviceable but not flashy player.

Mitchell Loewen – He is a long shot to make the team, in my opinion.

 

So I just named the 8 defensive ends currently on this roster. I expect two to be locks in Jordan and Okafor. After that, though? There’s probably 3 roster spots for the other guys. I would give the inside track to Hendrickson, Kikaha (depending on health) and Tapp at this point… with Gwacham and Muhammad on the outside looking in. Loewen to me is less of a threat. Cutting the most explosive guy of the group (Gwacham) and the one with some of the highest potential (Muhammad) would be a tough thing to do, though. Health will play a factor, but I could see some of these guys really surprising in camp… it’s just really hard to see who. Could Muhammad show up being so much clearly superior to Hendrickson physically that it gives the Saints pause? Does Gwacham get vaulted ahead of Kikaha because the Washington star is just not the same player?

The ideal scenario for me is Tapp getting released. I like him, don’t get me wrong. But we know what the Saints have in him, a steady and unspectacular player. If the Saints feel good about letting him go that means the younger guys really stood out and they believe they don’t need a “steady unspectacular” player. That would be a really good sign, in my eyes, that these other guys are showing potential and coming along. If Tapp makes the team, then one of those guys is getting let go and it means the Saints feel they can’t trust untapped potential over their aging but fairly reliable known commodity.

Either way, defensive end is thin unless some of these guys step up. The exciting part is there are a lot of unknowns. And with the unknown comes potential. That’s what will make watching guys like a returning Kikaha/Gwacham compete with the rookies Muhammad and Hendrickson. Okafor, by the way, is an unknown to some degree as well. And I can’t wait to see how he pans out. It’s not the sexiest list of pass rushers by any means and it could turn out to be a pile of trash. That would be selling this group short, though, I think. The development in camp will be key to seeing how they can contribute in 2017. Should be fun.