A blue-chip defensive end never materialized for the New Orleans Saints this offseason.
With experts and conventional wisdom fingering the position as a major need for the Saints throughout the offseason, the free-agent market dried up and the draft board, fickle as ever, didn't give the Saints a value they liked until the third round.
On the one hand, New Orleans is not bare at the position. One side is still patrolled by Cam Jordan, the Pro Bowl-caliber veteran who has 44.5 sacks over the past five years.
"We're trying to find somebody that can hold down that other side opposite Cam," defensive coordinator Dennis Allen said. "We've got a lot of good candidates, and we'll let the competition play out."
Now that the Saints have added Trey Hendrickson in the third round and Al-Quadin Muhammad in the sixth, Allen believes that the pool of candidates to take over a spot manned by Paul Kruger last season is deeper than it was last summer, even if much of the assembled talent represents something of an unknown.
For starters, the Saints have been encouraged by the progress of Hau'oli Kikaha, the 2015 second-rounder who showed flashes as a rookie before tearing his ACL last summer.
"it’s exciting to see him back in the building, moving around pretty well," general manager Mickey Loomis said at the draft. "He was doing some good things for us two years ago."
Instead of Kruger, who turned in a pedestrian 1.5 sacks in 571 snaps last year, the veteran presence is Alex Okafor, a man who might be a bigger star if he could only stay healthy in Arizona.
"There were some things that we saw on tape, although he's had some injuries," Allen said. "When he's been healthy, he's been an influence on the pass rush."
Allen also brought up, unprompted, the return of Obum Gwacham, the raw athlete who flashed with 2.5 sacks in a handful of snaps as a rookie in 2015 but ended up on injured reserve last season.
All three of those players represent potential that has been derailed by injury.
What the Saints have in their two new faces at the position remains to be seen. Hendrickson, at 6-foot-4 and 266 pounds with impressive speed for his size, is the kind of small-school find who might be better than the conference he played in while he was in college.
Hendrickson was coached at Florida Atlantic by Charlie Partridge, a long-time defensive line guru in the college ranks who knows a thing or two about pass rushers.
For the moment, Hendrickson keeps repeating that he'll be content to simply play on special teams as a rookie, but if he shows an ability to get to the quarterback, his role will obviously be bigger than that.
"I'm confident, especially with an NFL coach, that they're going to hone in on the things I might not have learned at FAU," Hendrickson said.
Muhammad, who did not play football last year, has supreme natural gifts, the kind that might have made him a higher pick if Miami hadn't been forced to dismiss him for his role in an NCAA investigation.
When he played, he knew how to bring pressure on passers.
"I feel like my strength is just getting off the ball and being able to get to the quarterback," Muhammad said. "I feel like I play with a motor and run to the ball, no matter what. ... I think that's one thing that stands out and is really important as far as being a pass rusher."
Effort is a hallmark of all of these pass rushers, from Kikaha on through Muhammad, and it will be important on a defensive line where Jordan, Nick Fairley and Sheldon Rankins are expected to provide ample pressure and drive quarterbacks into their teammate's waiting arms.
Whoever wins the job will have an opportunity to make their mark.
"I do think that there's more depth at that position at this point in time in the year than maybe what we had last year at this point in time," Allen said. "It's going to be exciting."
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