As the New Orleans Saints gather together this morning for what is the final practice session of their opening round of OTA's, many within the media who will be allowed access to view the team in action will be one of the "prized" signings of the Saints 2017 Free Agency class: edge rusher / defensive end Alex Okafor.
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.
For Saints fans however, the addition of Okafor is looked at in a bit more simpler terms, which is:
Can Okafor be the "complementary" player on the opposite side of All-Pro defensive end Cam Jordan that the team has lacked since the departure of former defensive end Junior Galette; and give their pass rush "an edge" that it has been sorely lacking for the past few seasons?
Okafor certainly seems to have a lot of upside, despite what seemed to be a less-than-impressive time spent out in the Arizona desert.
They also noted that Okafor had seen his overall grade at Pro Football Focus steadily increase during his time in Arizona, where it reached a career-high 72.5 last season despite his shared snaps with Jones and Golden in the Cardinals rotation.
Okafor showed the most promise as a pass-rusher lined up on the outside edge, with the folks at Pro Football Focus also giving him favorable PRP (pass rush productivity) scores of 9.4 and 9.5 in 2014 and 2015, respectively.
Last season in limited action, he still managed to rank tied for 3rd overall along with Chargers rookie defensive end Joey Bosa among all 3-4 LB's with a 13.8 PRP, behind leader Khalil Mack of the Raiders (15.0) and 2nd place Von Miller (14.4) of the Broncos.
Nevertheless, his respectable pass rushing productivity aside; Okafor can expect some healthy competition at that right defensive end / outside edge spot.
Among the challengers for Okafor will be brand new rookie and 3rd Round pick (#103 overall) Trey Hendrickson, who Pro Football Focus ranked first in the nation among all Division I pass rushers last year with a PRP of 20.3, while racking up 77 pressures for Florida Atlantic University last season.
Also in the mix will be returning starter Hau’oli Kikaha, whom we profiled exclusively here last week at the Saints News Network where we noted that Kikaha will be attempting to "come back" from a 3rd torn ACL to his left knee, the very same knee that he tore up in college twice in successive seasons (2011 and 2012) at the University of Washington.
And then there's also returning young veteran Obum Gwachum, who missed the entire 2016 season with an injury that still to this very day was never disclosed by either the Saints coaching or medical staffs.
So clearly, the Saints hopefully will have options should the signing of Okafor not pan out as they hope.
It will all simply come down to whether or not Okafor can regain the form that once upon a time, made him a 5-star high school All-American college prospect (he was ranked by Rivals at the top strongside defensive end in the country, the #14 player ranked overall nationally, and the 2nd-best player in the entire state of Texas) and a feared pass rusher off the outside edge for the Longhorns.
The 6-foot-4, 260 pound Dallas, Texas native is usually at his best when he can overpower or "bull rush" his opponent; and although he doesn't seem to have that quick 'burst' or 'first step' that most edge rushers have, Okafor can usually beat O-Linemen one-on-one with his pure physical strength and collapse the pocket on his way to the quarterback.
Where Okafor had been the most effective during his college days and perhaps what the Saints defensive coaching staff is hoping he will bring back to the table in his play this season is his propensity for the "strip / sack".
At Texas, Okafor seemed to possess an innate ability and a keen situational awareness that helped him hone in on a ball-carrier (QB or otherwise) and go for "the strip", but seemingly allowed him to do so without having to sacrifice his capacity to wrap up and make a tackle.
Creating turnovers had been a specialty for Okafor at Texas, where he caused 7 fumbles and even blocked a kick. However, during his time at Arizona from his rookie season in 2013 through last season, Okafor has managed only to force one fumble in 42 professional career games.
That's something that perhaps the Saints are hoping will come with a "change of scenery", as Okafor embarks on a fresh new start in New Orleans.
If in fact that happens, then perhaps New Orleans can improve on the 30 total sacks that they recorded last year, which ranked them 27th overall in that department.
Can Alex Okafor give the Saints defensive pass rush "an edge"?
At this point the organization is clearly holding its collective breath, that it turns out to be the case.........