When Cam Jordan looks around the Saints defensive front this season, he sees a lot of new faces.
A lot of young faces. Forced to rebuild the talent base on defense after a disappointing 2014 campaign, New Orleans has made sweeping changes in the front seven, turning to a youth movement powered by the 2015 draft class.
Another move this week has taken away another familiar face. New Orleans traded veteran defensive end Akiem Hicks, one of Jordan’s closest friends on the team, for New England tight end Michael Hoomanawanui, a move that turns over another spot on the front seven to the rookies.
Change has come swiftly to the Saints’ front seven. “If we go through the defensive line, we have six, seven young guys, rookies,” Jordan said. “Then we’ve got a couple outside linebackers that are rookies, inside linebackers that are rookies, corners that are rookies. Honestly, the organization must feel pretty strongly about them, and I can only hope that we’re turning in the right direction for this team.”
Familiar weapons like Hicks, Junior Galette, Parys Haralson, Curtis Lofton and Brodrick Bunkley are gone for a variety of reasons, replaced by rookies like Hau’oli Kikaha, Stephone Anthony, Tyeler Davison, Bobby Richardson and Tavaris Barnes.
Kikaha leads the team with two sacks, two forced fumbles and ranks second on the team with 18 tackles. Anthony, who has played nearly every snap, ranks fourth with 16 tackles. Richardson is second among defensive linemen with nine tackles, and Davison played a season-high 32 snaps last week, taking some of the weight off of John Jenkins at nose tackle.
“I think we’ve got a really talented group of young guys,” second-year pass rusher Kasim Edebali said. “They’re all being productive, they’re all getting better game to game, and those guys, they can make plays.”
Hicks had plenty of history in New Orleans. Envisioned as a massive two-gap defensive end, he looked like a rising player in 2013, stumbled because of injury in 2014 and entered a contract year in 2015 expected to be a big-time asset for the Saints defense.
“We had good visits up in the office, talking about the position, the offseason and the weight that we wanted him at,” Saints coach Sean Payton said. “He has been fantastic to coach. It was really a decision just based on the younger players that we were wanting to get more work with. I think (New England) has a chance to be a real good fit for him, and vice versa.”
The burden of replacing Hicks will largely fall on the shoulders of Richardson, the undrafted free agent from Indiana who turned heads immediately during training camp and played well enough that the Saints started limiting Hicks’ role against Tampa Bay. Hicks, who played 42 snaps in the season opener, saw his snaps cut to 28 against Tampa Bay and 28 again versus Carolina, largely due to ineffectiveness. The big lineman had just two tackles and no sacks in 98 snaps this season.
Richardson, by comparison, has made nine tackles in 77 snaps. Even so, the news that Hicks had been traded put the NFL’s harsh realities in perspective.
“I was shocked, because I was just in the room watching film and stuff, and you figure out a couple seconds later that he’s gone,” Richardson said. “It’s an eye-opener that this really is a business and anything can happen, so be prepared. Don’t ever come to work not prepared to do what you’ve got to do.”
Richardson knows what this opportunity could mean, a chance to establish himself as a bona fide NFL defensive lineman right away, despite his undrafted status.
“It’s the role that I’ve been waiting to get,” Richardson said. “I want to take full advantage of it.”
Now, the challenge is for the New Orleans front seven to establish an identity with all the new faces.
Two years ago, Jordan teamed with Galette and Hicks to create one of the NFL’s most devasting pass rushes. In 2014, largely the same cast of characters took a step back, but Jordan felt they still established a physical presence.
Now, only Jordan and John Jenkins are left from that group. Handed a $60 million extension in the offseason, Jordan is now the new face of the Saints’ front seven, the bellwether who has to lead the Saints’ pass rush despite increased attention.
New Orleans has only four sacks so far, but Jordan can see the potential.
“I’ve definitely taken a couple more chips, a couple more double teams than I’d like to,” Jordan said.
“But honestly, I think our defensive line has been alright with young Kikaha taking up some pressure, Edebali stepping up, and I think that sometime soon, we’re going to have a front to be reckoned with.”
What remains to be seen is how soon the Saints can realize that potential.