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Barry Hirstius

ON THE EDGE: Saints Pass Rush Not as Bad as We Think — Or is It?

When the New Orleans Saints didn't choose to address their need for an Edge pass rusher until the 103rd pick of the NFL Draft last week, the outcry from a large segment of Saints fans was deafening in some instances; after the organization itself had said going into the Draft that the position was considered a top priority in their ongoing efforts to improve the roster.

By passing on a handful of top edge rushers available between picks #11 and #76 in particular, those very same Saints fans felt that team management was not only being negligent in their decision to pick players at other positions, but are dangerously "living on the edge" (pun intended) of disaster by not doing so.

However, upon closer examination, perhaps the Saints pass rush -- and specifically the right defensive end spot on the opposite side of the Saints' top pass rusher Cam Jordan -- might not be nearly as bad off as we think; or what those rabid and extremely passionate fans believe it to be.

First of all, New Orleans made a very "under the radar" move in Free Agency several weeks ago when they signed former Arizona Cardinals defensive end Alex Okafor.

Mandatory Credit: Joe Camporeale-USA TODAY Sports

Originally drafted by the Cardinals in the 4th Round of the 2013 NFL Draft, Okafor was a former 1st team All-American defensive end at Texas, but has never quite lived up to his full potential thus far in the NFL.

The Saints are cautiously optimistic that a fresh new start with them can be the opportunity that Okafor can use to his advantage and show that he is still a very capable player at the pro level.

Okafor became expendable to the Cardinals after suffering an array of minor injuries during his time there that included a torn biceps tendon last Pre-Season, and he had already been relegated to a back-up role behind starters Chandler Jones and Markus Golden.

But when healthy and put in the position to do what he does best (rush off the outside edge), the 26-year old Okafor has shown himself to be a pretty good player --- as his eight sacks during his 2nd year in the League (after missing most of his rookie year in 2013) would indicate.

Okafor can play standing up or with his "hand in the dirt", and it's probably likely that the Saints will make him the new 'official' starter at that spot right out the gate; although he'll more than likely fill a situational role as part of a 3-man rotation and no doubt will have to show everyone that he can avoid the nagging injuries that constantly plagued him with the Cardinals.

After signing Okafor, there's also the fact that the Saints might have actually gotten very lucky by having underrated Florida Atlantic University Trey Hendrickson still on the board when they made their final one of 3 picks in the 3rd Round of last week's NFL Draft.

Photo courtesy of USA TODAY Sports

New Orleans passed on the opportunity earlier in that round to take a "bigger name" edge rusher like Tim Williams of Alabama or talented Youngstown State Division II All-American star Derek Rivers --- both of whom were still available when the Saints got on the clock with their pick at #76 --- and instead chose to select University of Florida linebacker Alex Anzalone.

Williams was taken a few picks later by the Ravens (#78), and Rivers was taken not long after at #83 by the Patriots.

The Saints brass said afterwards that Anzalone was their highest rated player on the Board at the time -- though some would argue (and have a strong case) that he was considered a "reach" at that spot, with the likelihood that he might have been still there at the Saints' next pick at #103  -- which is where they subsequently then took Hendrickson.

We can second-guess and argue all day long as to whether or not taking Anzalone was the "right move to make" at that spot, but the reality is that the Saints may have been pretty smart in the end by taking two players at those spots (linebacker and edge rusher) who could have considerable impact on the fortunes of the Saints defense going forward.

Hendrickson played in Boca Raton (about an hour's drive north of Miami) for Florida Atlantic in Conference USA, so there wasn’t much of a spotlight (although there likely will be now going since they recently hired the controversial Lane Kiffin as head coach) on him as there were on the "bigger names" of college football's best pass rushers.

Despite the lack of media coverage, Hendrickson overcame the odds and now finds himself among the players with an opportunity to give the Saints push rush a much needed boost.

Prior to the Draft, Hendrickson was drawing comparisons to former Minnesota Vikings All-Pro defensive end Jared Allen; but it was his performance at the East-West Shrine game that garnered himself the most attention and truly put him "on the map" for NFL Scouts.

The 6-foot-4, 266-pound Hendrickson didn’t earn his starting role until very early on during his sophomore year; but in the subsequent 32 games that he did end up starting after winning the job, the 22-year old posted an impressive stat total of 28 sacks, a whopping 39.5 tackles for loss, and forced seven fumbles. Hendrickson finished as FAU’s all-time leader in tackles for loss, QB sacks, forced fumbles and quarterback hurries.

Hendrickson is a player that despite his “small school” pedigree, shows good natural burst coming off of the outside edge along with a great quickness for that position.

While he’s not what you’d consider a “great athlete” by any means, he definitely qualifies as a ‘pure’ pass rusher (in the classic sense) with a “high motor” who can create a whole ton of pressure — something that other than the notable exception of Cam Jordan, the Saints haven’t been able to do very much of in recent seasons.

Hendrickson will probably be used mostly in substitution packages along with Okafor and the returning Hau'oli Kikaha (more on him in a moment) to begin his career, but this is a young man who if given an opportunity, can make a real impact and could end up being one of the true “steals” of this year’s 2017 Saints Draft class.

Not to be forgotten, the Saints also added another player in the 6th Round that can also play the Edge, in University of Miami Hurricanes defensive end Al-Quadin Muhammad.

Al-Quadin Muhammad - Saints News

(Photo by Joel Auerbach/Getty Images)

The pick of Muhammad is notable for a lot of things -- the least of which is that if he can get his collective act together, Muhammad could actually be a late-round "gem" for New Orleans.

Palm Beach Post Canes beat writer Matt Porter says that Muhammad was a heralded high school recruit from the state of New Jersey who was suspended for nearly as many games (14) as he played in (17), and finished with 10.5 tackles for loss and 7.0 sacks. That significantly dropped his Draft stock, which was why the Saints were able to select him with the 196th overall pick.

Entering his redshirt junior season, he was dismissed in Aug. 2016 (along with linebacker Jermaine Grace) after the university found he violated NCAA rules by dealing with a South Beach luxury car rental agency. Porter adds that Muhammad was also suspended for the 2014 season for punching a fellow student after Miami’s spring game and benched for the first game of 2015; which led many at the school to wonder "what might have been".

Porter notes that Muhammad is an extremely raw and unpolished young player given his playing inexperience, but looks the part of a physical outside edge pass-rusher. Depending on how he fares with eventually making the final 53-man roster, it's likely that the Saints would view him a situational pass-rusher much like Okafor.

Essentially, Muhammad has an entire "boat load" of potential, and if put in the right situation, could potentially blossom into a really good player down the line; particularly if he's allowed to grow and develop his skills not only on the field, but OFF of the field as well.

As the father of a 4-year old son, perhaps realizing that he now has the opportunity of a lifetime will allow Muhammad to flourish as a man and as a football player, during his time in NOLA.

There's a point in every young man's life when he realizes that it's time to grow up and start being responsible -- especially when a child is depending on you.

But just where he fits into the Saints' plans at the position, won't likely become clear until Training Camp and the Pre-Season. Unless he "blows away" the other players mentioned here, Muhammad could be a candidate for the Practice Squad while he continues his development.

And then of course, there's what I'd call the "wild card" of the Saints edge rusher position heading into the 2017 season: 2015 2nd Round Draft pick and former starter Hau'oli Kikaha.

Kikaha, suffered a torn ACL injury in the final week of Mini-Camp last June, and the Saints placed Kikaha on the physically unable to perform list before training camp, where he remained for the rest of 2016 and missed the entire season.

Torn ACL’s typically require a minimum of nine months to a year for full recovery, and so the “good news” is that Kikaha is reportedly way ahead of schedule in the rehabilitation process.

However, the question remains: just how good can Kikaha be when he returns?

Despite indications that he’s recovering well, nobody should be surprised if he struggles once he returns — given that he will be attempting to overcome tearing the same ACL in the very same knee (he tore the same ACL twice in college) for the third time in his relatively short playing career.

If — and right now that’s still a mighty big “if” — Kikaha can return to his previous form in 2015, it should give the Saints more pass rushing options, but given that New Orleans also has Okafor, Hendrickson and perhaps even Muhammad to play at that spot as well; this upcoming season could potentially be the “make or break” year of Kikaha’s career.

Which essentially means that even if Kikaha shows that he can still play, he will be likely be in the “fight of his life” just for a spot on the final roster.

All in all, the bottom line is that Cameron Jordan was the ONLY reliable player off the edge in 2016.

Sure, the Saints pass rush overall as a whole should be okay when you have guys like Jordan and interior rushers Nick Fairley and Sheldon Rankins terrorizing opposing QB's.

Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

And there's also the fact that an improved defensive secondary (featuring new additions Marshon Lattimore and Marcus Williams to go along with veterans such as Delvin Breaux and Kenny Vaccaro) should now be able to give the Saints Front 7 the time that they didn't have (thanks to all of the injuries that piled up) to get to the QB last year, despite the fact that New Orleans was ranked 3rd overall in the entire League in QB hits (106).

In other words, the Saints were able to generate pressure on the QB and even give him a "lick" --- but not before that same QB already had the time needed to find an open receiver against a depleted Saints secondary --- which was providing pass coverage with a "hodge podge" of veteran castoffs and undrafted rookies.

But ultimately, all of the moves made by Saints management this current 2017 off-season will become an absolute and unequivocal “bust” if none of them can provide the effectiveness that's needed coming off of the outside edge on the opposite side of the defensive line from Jordan.

The bottom line is that the Saints pass rush might not be as bad as we think.

The problem though is that we still don't know just how good it can be yet, either..............

Saints News Network featured columnist and Big Easy Magazine contributing writer Barry Hirstius is a 52-year old semi-retired journalist, former New Orleans-area sports editor, and writer previously with several sites that exclusively cover the New Orleans Saints football team. Additionally, he is a recurring guest on a variety of local Sports Talk Radio programs. Barry is also a New Orleans native who grew up as a fan of the team while attending games as a young boy at the old Tulane Stadium in the early 1970’s, originally following and now covering the team for a span of over 45 plus years. And perhaps most importantly of all: he is the Grandfather of two beautiful young girls, Jasmine and Serenity.....

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