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The Saints’ pass rush will be better in 2017

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Dec 24, 2016; New Orleans, LA, USA; Tampa Bay Buccaneers quarterback Jameis Winston (3) is pressured by New Orleans Saints defensive end Cameron Jordan (94) in the fourth quarter at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome. Mandatory Credit: Chuck Cook-USA TODAY Sports
Dec 24, 2016; New Orleans, LA, USA; Tampa Bay Buccaneers quarterback Jameis Winston (3) is pressured by New Orleans Saints defensive end Cameron Jordan (94) in the fourth quarter at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome. Mandatory Credit: Chuck Cook-USA TODAY Sports /
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The New Orleans Saints made it a point of focus that they would find a pass rusher this offseason.

And to many minds, they failed in that task. Don’t get me wrong — there’s good reason for that belief. Many writers think the same thing: whatever the New Orleans Saints accomplished this offseason is overshadowed by their failure to address the DE position opposite Cam Jordan. And there’s no denying that they fell well short of what most had hoped.

But the Saints had a great offseason. And any reports that tell you differently are, in my opinion, wrong. Not only will their additions to the OL, to the secondary and to the linebacker corps reap huge benefits during the season. Their pass rush will be largely improved in 2017. Let’s take a look.

Health and continuity

The Saints somehow managed to bring Nick Fairley back to New Orleans on a bargain of a deal after the late-bloomer emerged as a force up the middle against the pass. If they’d not managed this, I’d be immensely more concerned about their 2017 outlook. And yes, that’s’ nothing new for a team that had a healthy Fairley all of 2016 and still struggled to get after the quarterback.

But look elsewhere along the line. Injuries are a part of every season, and the Saints bug bit them hardest in the secondary. But their DL got bit bad too. Sheldon Rankins, Cam Jordan and Tyeler Davison all struggled with injuries throughout the year. Rankins missed half of the season with a broken leg. Both Jordan and Davison played through injuries, and Davison’s was severe enough that he had surgery after the season. And then you’ve got Hau’oli Kikaha, the former second-round pick who figured to start at DE. Kikaha tore his ACL a third time before the season began, and sat out the year on IR.

Will Kikaha come back? Who knows. The Saints can’t stake any hopes in his return. Payton seems optimistic about his recovery process, but any production from him would be a bonus. It’s possible. He’s recovered from the injury twice now. Only time will tell.

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Upgrades along the line

Injuries do happen every year, and if, for example, Jordan went down with an injury this Saints DL would be ruined. There’s no guarantee 2017 will be a healthier year that 2016.

So looking beyond the injury, can we say the Saints improved their roster on the defensive line?

Yes. We can. Remember, the Saints rolled out Paul Kruger for the entirety of the 2016 season as a starting DE. Alex Okafor and Trey Hendrickson may be unknowns, but they’re basically guaranteed to be an improvement over Kruger. Kruger was strong and hard to move from his spot, sure. But man could he not get after the quarterback. Saints fans thankfully won’t have to see any more of that this year.

So let’s look at their options: Alex Okafor, Trey Hendrickson, a healthy Obum Gwachum, and Al-Quadin Muhammad. They resigned Darryl Tapp, who will compete for snaps. Hau’oli Kikaha is a possibility but I can’t in good conscience include him here.

Okafor is the player to keep your eyes on here. PFF had him as the third-most-productive OLB pass rusher through Week 13 last year. That means, on a per-rush basis, Okafor generated the third-most pressures. Will that stat hold up now that Okafor is competing for a starting job at a different position? It’s unlikely. But even a fraction of that productivity would be a huge improvement over last year. Pair that with Fairley, Rankins and Jordan on passing situations and you’ve got a recipe for a rush.

Improved Secondary

Excuse me for this point, I’m taking a page out of Nick Underhill’s book. The Saints had the fourth most QB hits last year, yet failed to turn many of those into sacks. That’s a promising sign for a defense that, by all accounts, should force the quarterback to hold onto the ball for a second longer in 2017.

The Saints’ injuries at CB last year were well-documented. The unit went from one of the deepest on the roster to desperately thin, as Keenan Lewis, Damian Swann, Kyle Wilson, Delvin Breaux and P.J. Williams all landed on IR. Assuming lightening doesn’t strike twice, the Saints secondary will be hugely improved in 2017. Marshon Lattimore has the chance to be the best corner on this team, even with Delvin Breaux who, when healthy, is a true lockdown CB. They have strong competition in the slot, and a trio of safeties that could emerge as the best unit on the defense.

If the improvements in the secondary mean opposing quarterbacks will need to hold onto the ball half a second longer, that could make the difference between a QB hit and a sack.

Blitzes

The other thing that improvements along the outside allow the Saints to do is be more creative with their blitzing packages. Added depth at linebacker will have the same effect.

Dennis Allen is a creative and aggressive playcaller. He likes to bring pressure. Throughout the 2016 season, Payton and Allen talked about how it’s possible to generate QB pressure from outside the front-four. But injuries in the secondary really limited what they could do to get after the quarterback, blitz-wise.

Expect, in 2017, to see a lot more of Vacarro, Vonn Bell and Dannell Ellerbe rushing the passer. If Alex Anzalone can crack the lineup he has excellent rushing ability as well.

The Saints have an opportunity to really turn this defense around, health permitting. That starts with getting after the passer. And while they didn’t land the top-tier DE that everyone wanted, there’s more than enough reason to be optimistic about their chances in 2017.

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