One of the few complaints we’ve had about the New Orleans Saints defense in recent years is its overreliance on oversized defensive ends like Cameron Jordan, Marcus Davenport, and Tanoh Kpassagnon — and the decision to ask guys like Payton Turner and Carl Granderson to bulk up into the 280’s after turning pro. The Saints have lacked a speed element up front that’s caused their pass rush production to run hot and cold. When facing quarterbacks who stay in the pocket and take their time surveying the field, they can get home with power.
But when playing against the league’s young mobile quarterbacks and faster processors, the New Orleans defensive ends haven’t made much of an impact. The team even drafted speed rushers out of college like Trey Hendrickson and Zack Baun, but it’s taken years for either of them to get real opportunities in games. Baun plays more snaps on special teams than with the defense most weeks, and when he is out there he’s been tasked with backpedaling at linebacker rather than rushing upfield.
That could change in 2023, though. Defensive line coach Ryan Nielsen spoke often about his preference for heavy ends, but he’s left for the Atlanta Falcons defensive coordinator job. And Davenport, a divisive draft pick who modeled the complaints with this style of player, has also moved on for a $13 million contract with the Minnesota Vikings.
Enter Todd Grantham. The former Florida Gators defensive coordinator is replacing Nielsen as the group’s position coach. In four years running the Gators defense, his defensive ends were listed at an average weight of 254, 252, 260, and 257 pounds. Last season the Saints’ defensive ends had an average listed weight of 274 pounds, though they each said their playing-weight was closer to 285. Either way, that’s a substantial difference.
However, it’s not like Dennis Allen has a history of preferring these oversized edge rushers. He was the Denver Broncos defensive coordinator back in 2011, when they drafted Von Miller at No. 2 overall — who weighed in at just 246 pounds at the annual NFL Scouting Combine. A few years later, Allen was head coach of the Raiders when they picked Khalil Mack at No. 5 overall, after he weighed in at 251 pounds. Allen has shown us he knows the value in these undersized speed rushers off the edge, and that he’s comfortable investing significant resources in them.
So maybe he goes back to that without Nielsen pushing for bigger players up front. Or maybe not. It could be his defensive philosophy has changed over the last decade and he wants to stick with this plan. Hiring Grantham suggests otherwise, though.
If so, the Saints could look to bring in one of Grantham’s former players in free agency. The Los Angeles Rams cut Leonard Floyd as a salary cap casualty last week, and he enjoyed a productive season on Grantham’s 2013 Georgia Bulldogs defense with a team-leading 6.5 sacks (Grantham was his coordinator and position coach). Floyd is listed at 240 pounds now but usually plays closer to 244, and he’s been very effective no matter the number: he’s consistently graded out well in run defense while posting 54, 73, and 55 quarterback pressures the last three years with L.A. For context, Jordan led the Saints last season with just 37 pressures, per Pro Football Focus charting.
Bringing in Floyd would be a radical move for the Saints up front, but it kind of makes sense if we’re on the right track here. They have a coach who knows him well, and Allen has a history of fielding players like him. Signing him also wouldn’t jeopardize a lucrative 2024 compensatory draft pick because his last team released him from his contract. You’d like to think Payton Turner is ready to take the next step and start in his third season, but he’s a total unknown, and neither Granderson nor Kpassagnon should be asked to start 17 games. But rotating each of them into the lineup with Jordan and the 30-year-old Floyd could get the best out of everyone. If the Saints are changing their priorities at defensive end, Floyd might make more sense than other free agent pass rushers on the market. It could also lead them to a surprise draft pick like Georgia edge rusher Nolan Smith in April.