A few months back during Week #11 of the 2017 NFL season, the New Orleans Saints were dealt a serious blow via an on-the-field injury, when starting Right Defensive End Alex Okafor went down with a season-ending Achilles injury.
While the Saints were eventually able to whether the storm in Okafor's absence and still managed to win their division and make the Playoffs, it now leaves them guessing in the current 2018 NFL off-season as to what their plans are for the future at one of the more "key" positions for their much-improved defense.
The Saints signed Okafor on a one-year deal in last year's 2017 NFL Free Agency, and turned out to be one of their best free agent signings in quite some time.
He ended up evolving into the PERFECT complement to All-Pro Left Defensive End Cam Jordan on the other outside edge pass rush position, appearing in 10 games with 10 starts and totaled 43 tackles (27 solo) and 4 1/2 sacks.
But then he ripped up his Achilles tendon in the thrilling come-from-behind win over the Redskins, and now Okafor’s injury complicates the situation. Assuming that he heals up and recovers fully, you’d have to think that Okafor could return for the start of the 2018 season.
But on the "flip side", what if Okafor doesn't recover fully? He's only 27, but may not be ready in time for Saints Training Camp in late July.
There's also the chance that he could potentially face some of the same issues that his back-up — 3rd year veteran Hau'oli Kikaka — has endured while recovering from a knee injury that he suffered in Mini-Camp of 2016.
Kikaha, the Saints' 2nd Round pick in their 2015 NFL Draft, is a beloved player but has missed an inordinate amount of playing time with a series of injuries including that torn ACL in June 2016 that has rendered him unavailable on most NFL GameDays. As a result, it leaves his future with the team in doubt, as well.
The Saints found some relief late in the season with veteran defensive end George Johnson, but it remains to be seen if the 30-year old will be brought back for a full season in 2018. Rookie Trey Hendrickson had an impressive first season with the team and isn’t going anywhere, but it remains unclear how much of a role he will have at the position moving forward.
Bottom line: the Saints STILL can use another reliable player on the opposite outside edge of their defensive line to complement Jordan, and the upcoming 2018 NFL Free Agency and April's 2018 NFL Draft, should provide several intriguing options to fulfill that responsibility.
With that in mind, this morning we're taking an early look at some of the possible options for the Saints at the opposite defensive end spot of Cam Jordan, whether or not Okafor does or doesn't return in 2018; that likely will be available via either 2018 NFL Free Agency or the 2018 NFL Draft.
And we start first with......
2018 NFL FREE AGENCY
EZEKIEL "ZIGGY" ANSAH, DETROIT LIONS
Because the Dallas Cowboys are VERY likely to place the Franchise Tag on 26-year old defensive end DeMarcus Lawrence — the top pass rushing defensive end (14.5 sacks in 2017) in this year's Free Agent Class — the only other player (because the other available 2018 Free Agent pass-rush ends are all over 30 years old or just aren't deserving of a big "pay day") truly worth targeting for New Orleans in 2018 Free Agency is Detroit Lions defensive end Ezekiel "Ziggy" Ansah.
The Lions chose the 28-year old Ansah (he turns 29 in May) out of BYU with the 5th pick in the 2013 NFL draft, and he produced immediately with 32 tackles, eight sacks and two forced fumbles in 14 games as a rookie.
He then followed up his rookie season with a phenomenal 2nd season that included a career-high 14 1/2 sacks and four forced fumbles in 2015. In 2016, he had only two sacks in 13 games, dealing with an ankle injury for much of the season.
Then there was last year in 2017, where Ansah had an "up-and-down" 2017 season while producing six of his 12 sacks in the final two games of the year. He finished with 44 tackles and a forced fumble in 14 games, spending much of the season on the injury report with knee and back injuries.
The Lions still have the option of placing the Franchise Tag on Ansah for around $18 million, but should Detroit decide to let Ansah walk, he will have plenty of suitors; and for a Saints defensive line always seeking to boost its pass rush capabilities, Ansah (provided he stays healthy) would fit nicely in NOLA with his 36 and a half sacks in 5 NFL seasons.
2018 NFL DRAFT
OGBONNIA OKORONKWO, DEFENSIVE END / OUTSIDE LINEBACKER, UNIVERSITY OF OKLAHOMA
The current projection has the 2018 Draft Class top 3 pass-rushing defensive ends — Bradley Chubb of North Carolina State, Harold Landry of Boston College, and 6-foot-7 inch super-freak athlete Marcus Davenport of the University of Texas-San Antonio — to all be off the Draft Board by the time that the Saints pick at #27, which is why we begin first with the current #4 rated defensive end / edge rusher on the list (who "probably" will still be available when the Saints pick): University of Oklahoma defensive end Ogbonnia Okoronkwo, whose full name is pronounced "o-BO-ny-uh o-kor-RON-kwo".
CBS Sports NFL Draft analyst Chris Trapasso says that Okoronkwo has the athleticism and nuance when getting to the quarterback to be a productive NFL player right away. He actually uses his smaller stature (6-foot-1, 234 pounds) as an advantage in the leverage battle and possesses long arms to keep offensive linemen off his frame on the outside. He's a stand-up outside rusher with three-down ability.
According to Pro Football Focus, he generated 46 quarterback pressures (10 sacks, five hits, 31 hurries) on 373 pass-rushing snaps, meaning 12.3 percent of those snaps resulted in a pressure of some kind. By comparison, #1 rated pass rushing end Bradley Chubb's pressure rate was 13.7 percent. In his 4 year Sooners career, he tallied 20 sacks, 33 tackles for loss, 5 pass break-ups, and 5 forced fumbles in 35 total games.
Trapasso notes that Okoronkwo currently is "under the radar" because he's not 6-feet-3 and 250-plus pounds. But if he measures in somewhere between 6-0 and 6-1 and hits the 240-pound mark, he'll have ideal size to be a low-center-of-gravity outside linebacker at the NFL level who routinely wins with speed, pass-rushing moves and the envied ability to flatten to the quarterback.
Trapasso adds that in his final year, Okoronkwo showcased stout edge-setting ability against the run too, lending credence to the idea that he has value beyond seeing the field in pass-rushing sub-packages. If he were somehow to end up in New Orleans, it would be interesting to see how the Saints utilize his unique size and skill-set.
ARDEN KEY, DEFENSIVE END, LSU
Key was projected to be a top-five draft pick before the 2017 season began, but off the field issues have dropped his draft stock considerably. Nevertheless, Key remains among the top pass rushers of this 2018 Class, and the 21 year-old, 6-foot-6, 265 pounder recorded four sacks and 33-tackles in his 2017 season — the very same season in which he was sidelined four different times due to injuries.
However, Key more than proved his value during his first two years at LSU during which he generated a combined 87 QB pressures, according to CFB Film Room. Key also had 55 total tackles in the previous season, including 11 sacks.
Dane Brugler, senior NFL draft analyst for NFLDraftScout.com, says that Key's talent as an edge rusher is top-10 worthy showing the bend and athleticism to threaten the pocket on a consistent basis. However, those previously-noted injuries slowed his progress this past season and off-field issues have scouts worried he won't reach his potential.
NFL teams will be working tirelessly over the next few months to figure what makes him tick -- he could be drafted in the top 15 or fall into the second round based on those results. At this point, Key would seem to be a bit unlikely to land in NOLA because of his off-the-field issues, although it can't be completely ruled out should he prove himself over the next few months.
SAM HUBBARD, DEFENSIVE END, OHIO STATE
Hubbard finished his final year at Ohio State in 2017 with 42 tackles and 7 sacks as part of a Buckeyes defensive line that was / is loaded with pro prospects. His notable athleticism and size (6-foot-5, 265 pounds) have led many to project him as a pass-rushing 4-3 defensive end or hybrid linebacker for a 3-4 defense, at the professional level.
Hubbard's Buckeye career began as an outside linebacker/tight end. Once his pass-rushing skill was noticed at linebacker, he was invited to the defensive line room and encouraged to eat full meals as a redshirt freshman, so that he could bulk up and play on the D-Line. Hubbard is a phenomenally well-rounded athlete, and was even an all-state lacrosse player in high school in his native hometown of Cincinnati, Ohio.
Hubbard broke onto the Ohio State scene in the opening game of 2015 with a four-tackle, 1.5-tackle-for-a-loss, one-sack performance against Virginia Tech in place of the suspended Joey Bosa (now with the L.A. Chargers), Despite not starting another game that season, Hubbard still finished the year with 28 total tackles, eight tackles for a loss, 6.5 sacks and one interception.
Last season, Hubbard finally became a starter and soon began terrorizing opposing offenses. The defensive end capped off his impressive final year in Columbus with a four-tackle, 3.5-tackle-for-a-loss, 2.5-sack performance in the Cotton Bowl win over USC. Hubbard is currently being projected by some to be taken near the end of Round #1 (right where the Saints are picking), and WDSU-TV New Orleans Channel 6 sports anchor Fletcher Mackel even has them taking Hubbard, in his first 2018 Saints Mock Draft.
RAHEEM GREEN, DEFENSIVE END, SOUTHERN CALIFORNIA
As a junior this past season, Green finished second in the Pac-12 with 10 sacks along with 12.5 tackles for loss for the USC defense in 2017, before declaring his pro eligibility. Green's "highlight performance" in 2017 came during a 3-sack performance in a 48-17 win over Arizona State.
According to the Trojans, Green’s 10-sack year in 2017 was the first double-digit sack performance for the famed powerhouse program since 2012. He's projected to go off the Draft Board at any time before the end of Day #2, with a real chance of going in the 1st Round if he tests well at the Scouting Combine and at his Pro Day in March.
Pro Football Focus also rated him one of the best pass-rushers in the country, so he'll be hyped by both the scouting and analytical sides in the draft. Coming out of famed Serra High School in Gardena, California, Green was the No. 8-ranked defensive tackle in the Class of 2015. He finished his USC career with 117 tackles, including 20 for loss and 16.5 sacks.
ESPN NFL Draft expert Mel Kiper Jr. says that Green has a tremendous frame and was "kind of sneaky" as far as how good of a pass rusher that he is, adding that people don’t give him enough credit and projects him to be taken at the end of Round #1. Should he still be there when the Saints pick at #27 (he most likely will be), it would give the Saints another option to fulfill their pass-rushing needs to further improve their #10 ranked overall NFL defense from the season that just ended.
CHAD THOMAS, DEFENSIVE END, UNIVERSITY OF MIAMI
NFL Draft analyst Tony Pauline says that Thomas is a tall, rather athletic pass rusher who fires off the snap then moves well around the field. Thomas displays terrific edge speed and balance. His strength at the point is an issue, though Thomas projects nicely as a 4-3 situational pass rusher at the next level.
Thomas, quite talented on and off the field, finished his Hurricanes career with 103 tackles (26 for loss), 10 sacks, seven pass break-ups, two forced fumbles and two recoveries. But Pauline says that despite his versatility, Thomas needs to make more plays on the field and also needs to get bigger and stronger.
The 6-foot-6 inch, 275 pound Thomas improved his run defense and pass-rushing in 2017 to the tune of career-highs in pressures, total tackles and run stops, while limiting his missed tackles. For the third consecutive year, Thomas accumulated at least 26 QB pressures, however this year, he made them count more than he had previously. He tallied 11 total pressures that brought the quarterback to the ground, by means of five sacks and six QB hits while recording multiple pressures in 9-of-12 games.
As of now, Thomas seems likely to be a Day 2 pick, and with the Saints having already drafted one of Thomas' old college teammates (last year's 6th Round pick, defensive end Al-Quadin Muhammad), it would be very interesting to see how the Saints would react if Thomas were still available at the end of Round #3.
MARCELL FRAZIER, DEFENSIVE END, MISSOURI
At 6-foot-4, 235-pounds, edge rusher Marcell Frazier was consistent (if nothing else) at the pass rushing defensive end spot for the Tigers throughout his college career. NFL Draft analyst Parker Abate says that Frazier is "sneaky quick" for his size, can explode off of the outside edge, and holds real potential.
Abate observes that having the problem of facing off against Frazier could be a source of difficulty for NFL offenses. However: he also cautions that Frazier has yet to develop fully and this will cause him to get taken later than Round #1, and adds that a team should take a chance on him regardless of his "raw natural ability" in order to work with him and to help him reach his full potential.
Frazier led the SEC in tackles for a loss with 13.5 and earned all-SEC honors from the league’s coaches. But despite the recognition, Frazier — who was coming off a broken arm from spring practice — revealed that he played the beginning part of the 2017 season with a torn quad and didn’t feel healthy until the Georgia game in October.
Frazier's stock (he's currently projected to be a Day 2 pick) will likely either rise or fall depending how he fares in the Draft process over the course of the next few months, but surely could provide New Orleans with an intriguing option were he to be still on the board at the end of Round #3.
JUSTIN LAWLER, DEFENSIVE END, SMU
FanSided NFL Mocks Draft Analyst Dylan Huberman says that Lawler spent four seasons at SMU, culminating in a solid 2017 season boasting 9.5 sacks. The big defensive end is known for his nose for the football, as he finished his senior season with six or more tackles in seven games. Huberman adds that Lawler is a "frequent visitor" to opposing backfields, as he compiled 40.5 tackles for loss across his four-year career at SMU. He also racked up 20.5 sacks.
Lawler is equally adept at stopping the run, and Huberman notes that the 6-foot-4, 240 pound Lawler is one heck of a run-stopper. He closes gaps very quickly, often forcing the ball carrier backward to scan for other running lanes. However, it's getting to the quarterback where Lawler separates himself from the competition. He has a rapid-fire approach, as his quick first step makes his rip move to the edge even more devastating to offensive tackles.
Nevertheless, Huberman also cautions that inconsistency plagued Lawler throughout the 2017 campaign (4 of his 9.5 sacks came in a single game against UConn), and observes that while Lawler is an "elite" pass rusher, he is not nearly as valuable as an outside linebacker, where some NFL scouts may try to play him.
Lawler will likely remind a lot of Saints fans a lot of last year's rookie defensive end Trey Hendrickson, and just like Hendrickson did in last year's Draft, Lawler could be taken sometime on Day 2 and even last to the end of Round #3.
JA'VON ROLLAND-JONES, DEFENSIVE END / OUTSIDE LINEBACKER, ARKANSAS STATE
Without a doubt the "biggest sleeper" on this morning's list, SB Nation NFL Draft Analyst Dan Kadar says that part of the college post-season all-star process is watching players moving to different positions and seeing how they fare — and that’s clearly been the case for Arkansas State DE / OLB Ja'Von Rolland-Jones.
Kadar noted that the 6-foot-2, 244 pound Rolland-Jones was a "stat stuffer" at Arkansas State, finishing his career with the Red Wolves program by recording 43 1/2 sacks and 63 tackles for loss. He did most of that playing end with his hand down in a four-man front.
Sporting News NFL Draft Analyst Eric Galko has his own take on Rolland-Jones; and says that he wins with lower body flexibility and an explosive first step. He isn’t overly powerful, but he has a knack of getting into the backfield. If he can get stronger and develop a couple go-to counter moves, Galko adds that Rolland-Jones could be a good third-down pass rushing specialist who could eventually develop into an "every down" player.
While he certainly could be a stand-up end / outside linebacker in the 3-4 alignment, he seemingly would fit nicely in the Saints defensive scheme at the Right Defensive End spot, as well. If there's any potential "draft day steal" for New Orleans at the pass-rushing defensive end position in this year's 2018 Class, then Rolland-Jones is their guy..........