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Saints offseason brief: Defensive Line

A superstar pass rusher and a set of young players makes the line good, but will it become great in 2018?

Before getting to the defensive line, a quick transactional note: The Saints signed former Panthers safety Kurt Coleman, cut earlier this offseason. Full financial details have not been disclosed, but the contract is being reported as three years and $18 million. I’ll dig into the ramifications more when we get to the defensive backs article, but it seems likely that Coleman will take the place of free agent Kenny Vaccaro.

One more thing: While the NFL Scouting Combine is currently going on, and some of the results from it will impact the Saints’ drafting plans, I want to finish this series of columns before the league year begins and free agency starts in earnest. We’ll discuss more about draft prospects and potential picks at a later date.

Now, onto this week’s subject, the defensive line.


2017 Players and Cap Information

Player Age 2017 Cap Hit 2018 Cap Hit Signed Through
Cameron Jordan  29 $12,047,000 $14,247,000 2020
Alex Okafor  27 $2,000,000 N/A Free Agent
Trey Hendrickson  23 $641,572 $754,572 2020
Hau’oli Kikaha  26 $1,436,266 $1,675,644 2018
Al-Quadin Muhammad  23 $502,616 $592,616 2020
Mitchell Loewen  25 $466,666 $481,668 2018 (RFA)
George Johnson  30 $136,764 N/A Free Agent
Kasim Edebali  29 $40,588 N/A Free Agent
Alex Jenkins  25 $465,000 $480,000 2018 (ERFA)


With all the injuries the Saints had this season, most of these names are either injury fill-ins or practice squad players. The most important names on the list are the first five, so we’ll primarily focus on them.

Cameron Jordan is a bonafide superstar who earned a well-deserved All-Pro selection this season. He’s in his prime and there’s no question he’s a cornerstone of the Saints defense. The problem, historically, has been finding Jordan a capable running mate on the other side.

Alex Okafor was doing quite a good job on that front in both the running and passing game, among the league leaders in stops behind the line of scrimmage until he tore his Achilles. Okafor was on a one-year contract and in line for a substantial raise; after his injury, it may be another story. Medical science is getting better all the time, and Okafor isn’t that old, but Achilles injuries can sap explosiveness and take more than a year for a player to recover 100%. It’s not clear whether the Saints, or anyone else, will spend big money on Okafor with those risks involved. If the Saints can bring him back on an affordable deal, one that includes some security for the team if Okafor doesn’t recover to his old performance level, that’s probably a good idea, but they may be fine letting him walk if someone makes a serious offer.

Trey Hendrickson is the most likely starter opposite Jordan if the Saints don’t make another move. The third-round pick out of Florida Atlantic started working in the rotation in the second half of the year, even starting a few games. He has the athletic profile to succeed at the position, but needs some refinement, often winning on talent alone when he was at FAU. Still, most talented rushers see significant leaps in performance between their first and second years, so Hendrickson may well prove worthy of the mantle if given a chance.

Hau’oli Kikaha missed 2016 with a torn ACL, which happens to a team sometimes when it drafts a player who tore two ACLs in college, and in 2017 was mostly a backup, only starting when defensive line depth (and linebacker depth) got bad. It’s not clear what the projection for his future with the team is.

George Johnson and Kasim Edebali have such low cap hits because they were late-season signings filling in for the injuries the team had along the defensive line. (Not only was Okafor lost for the season, but Trey Hendrickson missed significant time down the stretch as well, and Kikaha had to fill in at linebacker occasionally with the injuries to that unit.)


2017 Players and Cap Information

Player Age 2017 Cap Hit 2018 Cap Hit Signed Through
Sheldon Rankins  24 $2,909,465 $3,491,358 2019 (TO for 2020)
Tyeler Davison  25 $669,306 $1,959,307 2018
David Onyemata  25 $675,586 $765,586 2019
Nick Fairley  30 $2,000,000 $6,000,000 Free Agent
Tony McDaniel  33 $58,823 N/A Free Agent
David Parry  26 $347,471 N/A Free Agent (RFA)
John Hughes  29 $364,705 N/A FA
Woodrow Hamilton  25 $86,400 $555,000 2018 (ERFA)
Devaroe Lawrence  25 $348,500 $480,500 2019 (RFA)


  • The New Orleans Saints’ official roster page lists DT Jeremy Liggins as a practice-squad player, but I can find no record of him being on the team otherwise; most other sources indicate he spent 2017 splitting time between Seattle and Indianapolis’ practice squads.
  • Woodrow Hamilton’s contract info was not available on, so I took his cap numbers from I assumed he will be an exclusive-rights free agent next year based on his lack of accrued time on an NFL active roster.

With Nick Fairley’s heart condition costing him the entire 2017 season, the next three guys on the list became the defensive tackle rotation and served capably well in those roles. (Sheldon Rankins even filled in some snaps at defensive end when injuries sapped the depth of the team there.) All three of them are young and should keep improving; in particular, we could see breakout third seasons from both Rankins (whose progress was slowed by a broken leg his rookie year) and Onyemata (who had relatively little football experience when he entered the NFL).

McDaniel, Parry, and Hughes were all signed at various points during the season to round out the depth at the position. I wouldn’t expect any of them to come back except in a similar situation. Lawrence and Hamilton are practice-squad players and futures guys.

I wouldn’t be surprised if the team tries to add one more defensive tackle to be part of the top rotation. (After all, Fairley was supposed to play a lot of snaps in 2017.) All across the defensive line, there are a lot of potentially useful free agents on the market this year. (With the Dolphins’ trade for Robert Quinn, they now have four highly-priced defensive linemen, in addition to some early draft picks, and may release one, adding another name to the list.)

I don’t know what the Saints will do, but whatever they’re looking for at the position, they can find a free agent fit. A big-money pass rusher like DeMarcus Lawrence would be ideal, but I’m guessing there’s no chance the Cowboys let him walk away in free agency.

There are a few veterans who have seen better days, for one reason or another, and might be worth a look to see if the Saints can get the best out of them. Dontari Poe is a free agent after signing a one-year deal with the Falcons; while he played well enough to warrant All-Pro consideration earlier in his career, suspicion is a back injury might have sapped his explosiveness and effectiveness. Still, he’ll only be 28 this upcoming season, so he may be worth a cheap flyer.

Former Jets defensive linemen Muhammad Wilkerson and Sheldon Richardson are both free agents, but they became known for repeated discipline problems during their time in New York as much as for their play (a major reason why the Jets traded Richardson to the Seahawks). Both should still be in their physical primes, but the Saints have tended to shy away from discipline problems. On the other hand, if those discipline problems mean the players come at a discount, they may provide surplus value on a contract.

More likely is that the Saints target a mid-tier free agent or two, players who might be value signings on their second contracts, like Alex Okafor this year. One interesting option is the Chargers’ Jeremiah Attaochu, who showed some potential early in his career but lost time due to injuries and the addition of Joey Bosa to the Chargers’ roster. The 49ers’ Aaron Lynch showed some potential early in his career, but has fallen out of favor after injuries and a PED suspension. Players like Star Lotulelei (Carolina) or Bennie Logan (Kansas City) might also provide bang for their buck on the interior.

There are a few veterans who might be good options for value signings on short deals, players for whom the idea of saddling up and riding for a shot at a championship. Players like Charles Johnson and Adrian Clayborn might serve as good secondary pass rushers on the edge.

The draft has some interesting options, although many of the best players may be gone by the Saints’ first-round selection. On the edge, the Saints might take a chance on the talent of LSU’s Arden Key in the first round, Washington’s Hercules Mata’afa, or, ideally, Boston College’s Harold Landy. Someone like Florida State’s Josh Sweat could be a good target with their third-round pick. On the interior, Washington’s Vita Vea would be a great addition if he makes it to the Saints’ 27th pick. Maurice Hurst, if his heart condition discovered at the Combine is cleared enough for the Saints to take him, would be a real steal at #27 overall.

Next week: Linebackers.

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