If there was ever a time for the New Orleans Saints to panic while facing adversity, it would be at the beginning of their upcoming 2019 Season-opening game on September 9th at home inside of the Mercedes-Benz Superdome against the visiting Houston Texans on ESPN Monday Night Football; with the team expected to be missing both defensive tackles Sheldon Rankins and David Onyemata from the line-up that night.
But now in his 3rd NFL season as the Black and Gold's defensive line coach, Saints coaching assistant Ryan Nielsen isn't all that concerned, and with good reason.
Thar's mainly because the Saints organization was very proactive in Free Agency a few months ago, when the team added not one but two defensive linemen to fill in for both players; in former New England Patriots nose tackle Malcom Brown, and former New York Giants defensive end / tackle Mario Edwards, Jr.
Rankins is healing still from surgery for a torn Achilles tendon that he suffered in the Black and Gold's Divisional Playoff victory in January against the Philadelphia Eagles that's expected to keep him out of action until the middle of the upcoming season; and Onyemata will be suspended for the Texans game after being disciplined for breaking the League's substance abuse policy (possession of marijuana).
“I’m excited about Malcolm. I’m excited about our group. I really am,” Nielsen said in a recent one-on-one interview at the Louisiana Line Camp coaching clinic and seminar at Nicholls State University, with Houma Today Staff Writer Mike Gegenheimer two weeks ago.
“Malcolm brings some experience, brings a winning attitude. He’s a tough, hard-working player. He loves football, loves to practice and everything about the game. He’s been a pleasure to coach so far and the future is so bright for him. He’s still a young player in this league. I’m excited we have them as part of our group.”
His admiration for Brown is understandable, considering that the 6-foot-2, 320 pound former University of Texas All-American helped the Patriots advance to the Super Bowl three straight seasons, winning two of them. But Nielsen told Gegenheimer that Edwards is quite the handful as well; and has more than enough capability to make an indelible impact in Rankins and Onyemata's absence(s), in his own right.
“He’s a player that has a ton of talent and as we’re going to OTAs and mini-camp and everything he’s gotten better every single day,” Nielsen said. “His work ethic, his attitude and coming to work every single day and one day at a time getting better — it’s been a pleasure to be around him. The guy has come with the right attitude and the effort, and you get that from him every day.”
That whole depth issue at the beginning of the season aside, Nielsen has been the coaching assistant that Who Dat fans are eager to see if he can help develop 2nd year defensive end / EDGE pass rusher Marcus Davenport; whose biggest critics believe that the Saints organization gave up too much for after they surrendered their #1 pick in this year's recently completed 2019 NFL Draft to the Green Bay Packers, in order to move up and select him at #14 overall last year.
The most vocal of critics have questioned specifically Davenport's capability to play with his "hand in the dirt", which he's considered better suited to do by most analysts because of his length and size (6-foot-7, 264 pounds).
It's a task for Nielsen that could be one of the more critical coaching jobs on the team's staff moving forward into Training Camp and the Pre-Season later this Summer, as New Orleans hopes that the talented Davenport can quickly become the "missing piece" for the Saints defense, on the opposite side of All-Pro defensive lineman Cam Jordan. Davenport recorded 12 QB hits and 4 1/2 sacks in his rookie campaign in 2018.
— New Orleans Saints (@Saints) October 29, 2018
“First, the maturity,” Nielsen said with excitement. “It’s (the upcoming 2019 Season) going to be his sophomore year in the league and he’s played in all the games, he’s been in the playoffs. He’s done all that. So I’m expecting him to take the next step and he already knows what’s coming.
“Now he just has to improve on his overall strength and flexibility and the things he has to do to become a better player. But I’m excited because we’re not going to go into a game where he doesn’t know what’s happening or what’s coming. He’s going to be a more mature player.”
Nielsen's "hands-on" approach to teaching proper technique to young defensive linemen is one of the reasons why the 40-year old coaching assistant is regarded in some League circles as a "star-maker"; and his notable capability of developing college D-linemen into quality NFL defenders is the exact reason why it's hoped that he can help "mold" the talented but still-very-raw Davenport into an elite NFL pass-rusher in due time.
It was almost a two and a half years ago (February of 2017) while Nielsen was still serving as the Wolfpack defensive line coach and run game coordinator at North Carolina State, when the Saints organization first showed interest in him to replace former Saints D-Line coach Bill Johnson, who was not retained after the 2016 season.
New Orleans eventually hired Nielsen on Feb. 9th of 2017 (over two years ago), which helped to fulfill a career aspiration that the Simi Valley, California native and career college coaching assistant of 14 years (4 years with North Carolina State) had since retiring as a player (1 season in the NFL with the Philadelphia Eagles, 1 season with the Arena Football League Los Angeles Avengers) back in 2003.
"I think there's always a dream, there's a goal, maybe one day," Nielsen said to reporters at the team's opening round of OTA's back during the 2017 Season. "I was really happy at NC State, but now that I'm here, I look back and the decision was a no-brainer."
"Coach (Sean) Payton, Mickey Loomis, Coach (Dennis) Allen, everybody once we were going through this process communication-wise, top notch," Nielsen said. "It was a fantastic experience just to go through the process from N.C. State to get hired by the Saints."
Nielsen has drawn rave reviews since that time, and it's obviously why there's a sense of excitement surrounding his work with Davenport, which got started formally at the team's 2018 Rookie Mini-Camp over a year ago.
Nielsen, who played the defensive tackle position himself once upon a time at Southern Cal in the late 1990's and early 2000's, is a popular coach among players — and a position coach who former New Orleans Advocate beat writer Joel A. Erickson said in his article last year, is an energetic, intense presence who will apparently take an active role on the practice field.
Nielsen has become well known for personally and physically demonstrating technique, even if that means putting his hand in a 3-point stance and getting "down in the dirt" to show a player how to come off the ball and execute a move.
That "hands on approach" to teaching players was something that observers say wasn't really embraced all that much previously by the former 'old school' D-Line coach Bill Johnson.
We'll see in the upcoming weeks and months ahead, if Nielsen's coaching style has paid dividends or not with Davenport; whose biggest critics believe that Davenport can be neutralized at times by bigger offensive tackles when he comes off the outside edge as a "stand-up" rusher in a 2-point stance (for NFL D-Linemen in the base 4-3 defense, sometimes it’s actually harder to get a good jump off the ball when you don’t have your "hand in the dirt" — a.k.a., a 3-point stance).
Lining up with a hand on the ground or "in the dirt", then exploding out of that position and staying low, requires excellent technique, and Saints defensive coordinator Dennis Allen's defense normally lines up its defensive ends in a 3-point stance. Davenport played in a 3-point stance in his first two seasons at Texas-San Antonio, but that was before he packed on most of the weight he carries now.
Erickson observed that Nielsen — aided by defensive assistant / pass-rushing specialist Brian Young — have already gotten ahead of the curve with Davenport by working with him on his technique ever since he arrived last year; and that process is likely to continue while Davenport actively learns the "ins and outs" of playing the position.
Clearly given his resume with developing D-linemen throughout the past few years, nobody is more qualified to teach Davenport those pass-rushing techniques than Nielsen is.
"We felt like he had a unique skill set that allowed him to be able to rush the passer," Allen said to reporters late last season. "He has size, length, speed, so all the qualities that you’re looking for, he has. It’s getting him out here, getting him accustomed to what we’re going to ask him to do and helping him to develop."
If Nielsen is able to get the most of his time spent with Davenport for over the past year, then there isn't any doubt that it could bode very well for the Saints defense not only just for the upcoming 2019 season, but much further into the future as well.
If the 'Star-Maker' is able to continue his notable success with developing talented college D-Linemen as he has for the last several years, then there shouldn't be any doubt that Nielsen can "mold" Marcus Davenport an elite NFL pass-rusher for the Black and Gold during his career in New Orleans (hopefully for quite some time).
And as far as the team's lack of depth with the pending absences of Rankins and Onyemata, there isn't any doubt whatsoever that Nielsen's entire approach will likely remain a big reason for the Saints' continued success....