WHITE SULPHUR SPRINGS, W.Va. — The decision to release Junior Galette opened a hole the Saints already had to fill even wider.
A team that spent the entire offseason trying to augment the pass rush now has to replace its best pass rusher, a player who produced 22 sacks over the past two seasons.
But as the Saints get ready to open training camp, coach Sean Payton and General Manager Mickey Loomis remain confident that their offseason overhaul has left plenty of options capable of getting after the passer.
“He had a lot of production, so we’re gonna miss that. But yet look, I think we feel like we have some players who can pick up that slack,” Loomis said. “That’s what training camp is for: for us to find out what we have, and how we are going to make up for that production, and who that is going to be. So those answers to that question will come in the next coming month and months.”
And the answers might not come from the obvious places, even if the Saints did add several players who can bring heat off the edge through the draft and free agency.
First, the Saints added veteran linebacker Anthony Spencer, who had his best years in Dallas under Rob Ryan. Then New Orleans spent a second-round pick on Washington’s Hau’oli Kikaha, a player who had 32 sacks over the past two seasons and might have been a high first-round pick if he’d tested better at the NFL Combine. In the fifth, the Saints drafted another rush linebacker in Davis Tull.
All three might have to surpass expectations to fully replace Galette’s production off the edge.
Then again, Ryan might have spent the offseason working on ways to highlight Cam Jordan, the newly minted face of the New Orleans defense, and produce pass rush in a bevy of different ways. Beset by Galette questions in his pre-training camp press conference, Payton hinted that the Saints might be shuffling things up along the defensive line. A versatile player with the speed to rush from the outside and the size to get push inside, Jordan opens up some options.
“Absolutely,” Payton said. “Where we’re playing Cam, with what we’re going to do defensively, because there’s some changes with how we’ll be lining guys up.”
Payton didn’t offer explicit details on the Saints’ plans.
But an improved rush from the interior could also help make up the deficit. For the most part, the Saints struggled to get a consistent push from the inside last season, allowing opposing quarterbacks to step up into the pocket to avoid Galette and Jordan off the edge. Improve the interior rush, and those pockets get smaller, allowing the new edge guys to close.
New Orleans added a few players who might be able to do just that. Veteran defensive tackle Kevin Williams, even at 34, recorded three sacks for the Seattle Seahawks last season and remains a prototypical penetrator capable of disrupting a gap. Fifth-round pick Tyeler Davison, and a few other young guys, also have the skills to create problems from the interior.
“We feel like Kevin can give us those snaps, we saw it on tape last year with Seattle. We’ve just got to be smart with how many snaps that is. We do have some younger players on the inside who have to step up. I think they will.”
The key is figuring out how to get the best four pass rushers on the field in passing situations.
That’s the problem New Orleans is looking to solve in training camp.
“It’ll be up to us to get the right combination of guys on the field, not only in the base but in the nickel,” Payton said. “If that means our front gets altered a little bit, then so be it. I think that’s just smart coaching.”