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WORTH EVERY PENNY: Saints DE Alex Okafor Delivers Free Agent Jackpot for NOLA

For 2 million dollars this past March, the New Orleans Saints not only got one of the biggest bargains in the history of the franchise, but also hit the NFL Free Agent "jackpot" after several recent years of some very notable failures.

If you're a Saints fan, then certainly you're familiar with names such as Champ Bailey, Jairus Byrd, Brandon Browner, C.J. Spiller, and James Laurinaitis.

All of those players listed above were notable "busts", and in some of those instances, the Saints shelled out BIG-TIME money only to get almost nothing in return for their investment.

But this March, that all changed; when the Saints signed 26-year old and 5th-year NFL veteran Arizona Cardinals defensive end Alex Okafor to a one-year, $2 million deal that also had $1 million worth of bonuses depending on his playing time and sack total.

9 months later, Okafor has 3.5 sacks, 33 tackles, 4 tackles for loss, 3 passes defensed and 2 forced fumbles to his credit; and he along with a few other players (such as Marshon Lattimore) are among the primary reasons for the team's dramatic turnaround this season that now has seen them land back on top of the NFC South Division standings and position themselves as legitimate Playoff contenders in the National Football Conference.

Photo courtesy of Michael C. Hebert

So it probably goes without saying that Okafor has turned out to be worth every single penny of the Saints' money that was spent to acquire his services.

"This is what I envisioned when I decided to come here," Okafor told reporters in front of his locker, after the team's 30-10 win over Tampa Bay this past Sunday.

Certainly other people had envisioned it as well. But none of them were actually expecting to SEE it.

"I'm a volume rusher, man," Okafor said. "I need ... repetitions to get going, and that's what I had an opportunity to do here. They give me the snaps, and I produce once I'm in there."

That probably goes without saying.

He finished Sunday's game against the Buccaneers with 6 tackles, a half sack, 2 QB hits, and 5 QB pressures.

Photo courtesy of Michael DeMocker, The New Orleans Times-Picayune

As NOLA.com / The Times-Picayune beat writer Josh Katzenstein noted yesterday: Okafor has already played 395 snaps for the Saints this year, appearing on 76.8 percent of the defensive plays. That's a big-time increase from just the 230 defensive snaps that he had in his 4th NFL season last year with the Cardinals.

Katzenstein adds that Okafor's career high for snap percentage was 81.1 percent in 2014, which was his 2nd season when he posted a career-high 8 sacks after being drafted by the Cardinals in the 4th Round of the 2013 NFL Draft from the University of Texas.

And what that's resulted in is a player who has not only managed to rejuvenate his career, but the entire Saints pass as well. In 8 games thus far, the Saints pass rush already has 23 sacks this season; after only recording 30 of them all of last year.

You can give Okafor credit not only for his 3.5 sacks, but an "assist" on a handful more of them — thanks to the consistent pressure that he's brought all season long from his starting RDE (right defensive end) spot.

"He's done everything that this team and the coaching staff has asked him to do," linebacker A.J. Klein said of Okafor. "He's been a factor. He's been a great complement on the edge opposite of Cam (Jordan)."

The only question now will be: will the Saints make a preemptive strike and try to lock up Okafor with a longer-term deal? Or — will they take the risk of letting him go right back to Free Agency when the season is finally over and risk losing him just as he's starting to carve out his niche within the Saints defense?

Photo courtesy of Layne C. Murdoch, Jr.

Those are questions that will have to be answered at some point in the future.

But for now, the Saints are enjoying the benefits of Okafor's outstanding play, most notably a (6-2) record, a 6-game winning streak, the lead in the NFC South Division, and the current #2 seed overall in the NFL Playoffs, if the season were to end today.

When asked to give his thoughts on Okafor's performance up to this point after Sunday's win over Tampa, head coach Sean Payton said:

"I think he's done a good job He's been very steady."

Very steady, indeed.

And worth every single penny.........

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Saints News Network Editor / Featured Columnist Barry Hirstius is a 51-year old semi-retired journalist, former New Orleans-area sports editor, and columnist 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 40 plus years. And perhaps most importantly of all: he is the Grandfather of two beautiful young girls, Jasmine and Serenity.....

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