A motto the Saints constantly preach to one another is, “Get off your spot.”
As defensive line coach Bill Johnson explains, it means team members should not be content with being the same players they were at this time last year.
It applies to all on the roster, but Johnson concedes it’s especially apt for second-year defensive linemen John Jenkins and Glenn Foster, raw rookies in 2013 who still managed to have moments of brilliance.
“When you get down to it, they were helpers,” Johnson said recently. “(They are) good young prospects that need to get better.”
Better with their alignment, better with their stance, better with how they strike opposing offensive linemen to get around them.
“I want them to go back like they don’t know a thing and strip down their fundamentals,” Johnson said. “That’s what we’re doing — taking it like an old truck, stripping it down and building it back up to see if we can get back to a stronger, better bunch of guys.”
Of course, it’s unlikely either Jenkins or Foster wants to forget literally everything he has gone through as the Saints’ mandatory three-day minicamp begins Tuesday and their efforts to earn roles as contributors on the regular-season roster continue.
Nose tackle Jenkins, for one, said he relished “the chance to play under pressure” when he started four games after veteran Brodrick Bunkley hurt a calf muscle early in the Week 1 win at Atlanta.
Jenkins, a third-round pick out of Georgia, lined up on 25 of the Saints’ 56 defensive snaps in Week 1 and then 163 of 233 over the next four games. According to the analytics website Pro Football Focus, he had eight of his 22 solo tackles, six of his 10 quarterback hurries and two of his four QB hits in those five games, all of which New Orleans won en route to the fourth 5-0 start in franchise history.
The 6-foot-3, 369-pounder played less when Bunkley returned, logging 293 snaps in the next 11 regular-season games and two playoff contests. But he stood out again in the postseason, piling up a personal-best five solo tackles in the NFC wildcard win at Philadelphia — the first road playoff victory in Saints history — and recording his first career sack in the divisional round defeat at Seattle.
“Last year’s experiences helped me a great amount,” said Jenkins, who sat out two voluntary practices open to the media this offseason for undisclosed reasons but has insisted he will be ready for the 2014 season. “I’m prepared for (all that awaits) this season due to last year.”
Despite missing the first two games of 2013 with a hurt ankle and then Weeks 13 and 14 with a knee injury, the 6-foot-4, 285-pound defensive end Foster had three sacks, four takedowns behind the line of scrimmage and six quarterback hits in the 14 contests he played after making the team as an undrafted rookie out of Illinois.
Observers raved about his pass-rushing potential and concluded he was a luxury to have behind Pro Bowl defensive end Cameron Jordan (14 sacks, including the playoffs), outside linebacker Junior Galette (12) and defensive lineman Akiem Hicks (five), all of whom were among the chief reasons the Saints allowed the fourth-fewest yards and fourth-fewest points in 2013.
“We were young last year ... but we were able to mature as a unit,” said Foster, who expressed excitement that the Saints retained every first-team defensive end and linebacker from 2013. “We were able to not only gain experience for ourselves but work with the person next to us. It’ll help us a lot to be able to play off each other and complement each other ... a lot better.”
Nonetheless, both Foster and Jenkins understand that Johnson oversaw their development as rookies, and they are taking his advice to heart as they seek to get off their spots in 2014.
“I had a chance to do ... a lot of good things (as a rookie), and I also did some bad things that I have to work on this offseason,” Jenkins said. “Whatever I’ve got to do, that’s what I’m going to do.”
Foster said he’d be thrilled to surpass three sacks but actually had another primary goal for his sophomore NFL season.
“I just want to ... ball out,” said Foster, who had four sacks in three college seasons. “I just want to play above average.”