Training Camp for the New Orleans Saints and the rest of the 32 teams in the NFL is now only just a little bit over 2 weeks away; and it's the exact reason why at this time every year that all of the teams across the League are doing some serious self-evaluation as they determine if they have any glaring weaknesses that opposing teams can exploit.
And since the Saints will return the #1 ranked team in total offense last year and have bolstered their running game with the addition of former 4-time All-Pro RB Adrian Peterson, it's an easy assessment to make when saying that the team's #1 weakness hands down is on the defensive side of the football.
If you were to completely throw out the 2013 season (the last time the Saints were in the NFL Playoffs) when the Saints finished 11-5 and had the #4 overall ranked defense in the NFL, then you have a defense that has finished with overall rankings of 31st, 28th, 32nd and 31st in total defense in 4 out of the past 5 years.
While there are more than a whole handful of reasons why the defense has struggled so badly, most notably a slew of season-ending injuries in their defensive secondary that both figuratively and literally had them signing players "right off of the street", this season the unit's most glaring weakness seems to lie with their defensive line, specifically the pass rush.
Defensive linemen essentially are the core or the "back bone" of any potentially dominant defensive unit, and in the past few years the Saints have struggled with finding a complementary player to put with All-Pro defensive end Cam Jordan after the departure of the controversial Junior Gallete in the 2015 off-season.
Although the Saints D-Line has been very effective at getting pressure on opposing QB's (New Orleans was ranked 3rd overall in the entire League in 2016 with a total of 106 QB hits), they still only managed to record 30 total sacks last year; which ranked them 27th overall in the NFL in that department.
That's what led Saints front-office brass this current off-season to address the issue of depth along the D-Line, but only to have a cruel twist of fate throw them a 'curve ball' that they might not ever fully recover from.
That curve ball was the announcement a few weeks ago that recently re-signed veteran defensive tackle Nick Fairley's NFL career is now likely over because of a heart condition.
It leaves the Saints with a tremendous void for their interior pass rush; and while 2nd year player and likely future NFL superstar Sheldon Rankins should easily assume the starting role created by Fairley's departure, his loss nevertheless was a crippling blow to a unit desperate to upgrade their defense just enough to complement their annually high-powered Top 5 offense.
Now the Saints will turn to 32-year old veteran and former Seattle Seahawks DT Tony McDaniel and last year's 4th Round draft pick and former Canadian college defensive MVP David Onyemata, along with other players such as Ashaad Mabry and Justin Zimmer; to fill the void created by Fairley's departure.
If the interior of the Saints D-Line is still a concern, then one can only imagine that the outside pass rush is even more worrisome by comparison.
The Saints seem to have been snake-bitten in their attempts to fill the role of an outside edge rusher after Galette was released, and as of this very moment nearly 2 years later as the team gears up for the start of Training Camp, they still aren't sure if they've found an answer.
The Saints made one of their top 2017 Free-Agent signings at that position this off-season with the addition of former University of Texas All-American Alex Okafor.
Originally drafted by the Arizona in the 4th Round of the 2013 NFL Draft, Okafor has never quite lived up to his full potential thus far in the NFL; but if he can rebound from a couple of poor seasons out in the desert with the Cardinals, then perhaps the Saints might have something to work with up front.
The Saints are cautiously optimistic that giving Okafor a "fresh new start" could be the perfect opportunity that Okafor can use to his advantage, and as a result prove to everyone (and especially the Cardinals) that he is still a very capable player at the pro level.
Okafor became expendable in Arizona in part because of a handful of minor but nagging injuries during his time there that kept him out of action, and as a result he quickly found himself falling down the Cardinals depth chart.
Making matters worse was a torn biceps tendon that he suffered last Pre-Season, after he had already been relegated to a back-up role behind starters Chandler Jones and Markus Golden.
But when he has been healthy and put in the position to do what he does best (rushing the QB off the outside edge), the 26-year old has proven himself in the past to be an effective player --- as his eight sacks during his 2nd year in the League (after missing most of his rookie year in 2013) would indicate.
There is one notable "wild card' to consider of course, which is 3rd year veteran Hau'oli Kikaha.
It's been well-documented that Kikaha will be attempting to make a "come back", after blowing out his left knee with a torn ACL for the 3rd time in his relatively short career -- the very same knee that he previously blew out 2 other different times in college.
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 last year's Training Camp in West Virginia, 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” for the team and its fans right now is that Kikaha is reportedly way ahead of schedule in the rehabilitation process.
He was limited in last month's Mini-Camp, although Training Camp should give him an opportunity to show what he can do, and perhaps most importantly: IF he even can still do it at all. If Kikaha can return to his previous form, it should give the Saints more pass rushing options that at this point seem to be uncertain at best.
But until we actually see him doing it in full pads in Training Camp practices or in live game action during a Pre-Season contest next month, Kikaha will remain as the one big "question mark" on the Saints D-Line.
One thing to remember: Kikaha has overcome this type of injury once before and managed to still become a potentially dominant player at his position. Just months removed from his 2nd surgery as a junior at the University of Washington in 2013, Kikaha notched 13 sacks and quickly re-established himself as one of the top pass-rushers in the PAC-12.
Then in his senior 2014 season, Kikaha emerged as one of the most productive "sack masters" in all of Division I / FBS college football; and earned All-American honors at defensive end for the University of Washington when he led the nation in sacks with 19 that year for the Huskies.
If somehow Kikaha is able to "bounce back" just as he was able to do a few years ago, then it would be something that could suddenly turn what is currently considered the Saints' biggest weakness, into one of their greatest strengths.......