Saints end road hex, take first in NFC South with 28-10 victory at Carolina _lowres

Associated Press file photo by Mike McCarn New Orleans Saints defensive lineman Cameron Jordan, right, sacks Carolina quarterback Cam Newton last season.

Understanding how much Cameron Jordan means to the New Orleans Saints requires little to do with dollar figures, signing bonus, cap hits or years on a contract.

A better indicator came from the head coach himself.

Back in late March, in the middle of an offseason filled by seismic moves to overhaul the roster, Sean Payton identified Jordan as one of the team’s top offseason priorities.

“I think going back to the owners meetings, I mentioned that was an important sign for us through this offseason, heading into the fall,” Payton said after Thursday’s organized team activity. “It’s good to see we were able to get that done.”

Now that the Saints have locked up Jordan with a five-year extension that includes $33.8 million guaranteed and $60 million overall in addition to this year’s $6.969 million, the rebuilt New Orleans defense has a new pillar.

The reasons for that kind of financial commitment goes beyond Jordan’s ability to rush the passer. Obviously, the 28 sacks Jordan has racked up over the past three seasons are the attention-grabbing statistic, but Jordan is so effective in the running game that he rarely comes off the field.

Defensive ends with that kind of all-around game are difficult to find.

“Well, he’s a versatile player,” Payton said. “What I mean by that is he plays the run well, he plays in the sub well. He gives you some flexibility as to where you line him up.”

At 6-foot-4, 287 pounds, Jordan now offers Rob Ryan some options as the Saints finish their summer practices and start preparing for training camp. For most of his career in New Orleans, Jordan has lined up as a defensive end, both in a three-man front and a four-man front.

But his size also makes Jordan a dangerous option as an interior rusher when New Orleans goes to its nickel or dime packages, a pair of personnel groups the Saints used more than 70 percent of the time last season, Payton said.

New Orleans has already deployed Jordan as an interior rusher before, lining him up on the inside of Junior Galette at times last season and allowing the team’s two best pass rushers to work in tandem.

In most 3-4 defenses, the two outside linebackers often step up as edge rushers in their pass-rush packages, the two defensive ends shift down to where a tackle would normally play and rush from the interior, and the nose tackle is the player most likely to come off the field.

In the past, the Saints haven’t always had the edge presence — other than Galette — to free up Jordan to rush inside. Now that the Saints have added more outside rushers by bringing in players like Hau’oli Kikaha, Davis Tull and Anthony Spencer, New Orleans might be able to shift Jordan to the interior of the line more often.

Payton said the Saints are still figuring out exactly how they want to deploy Jordan next season, but he hinted that Jordan’s role could change somewhat heading into the 2015 season.

“I’m sure that we’ll continue to use him,” Payton said. “The key is where, and how we want to deploy him in the nickel, but you know, he’ll be a part of us getting better on defense this year, for sure.”

If Jordan becomes a force as an interior and edge rusher, his value rises even higher. Interior rush is a precious commodity in the NFL. Last season the Saints struggled at times to push the pocket and get in the quarterback’s faces.

But all of that can be decided in the coming months. For the moment, the key is that Jordan is locked up for years to come. Although he didn’t appear in the locker room during the 30 minutes open to the media on Thursday, Jordan had already said he was more worried about what’s happening on the field next season than he was about his contract situation. That perhaps was because the two sides were getting close to a deal.

“What crosses my mind is how good this defense can be,” Jordan said. “And how well I can play within this defense.”

Sounds like the Saints might be working on more ways to feature one of their foundational pieces.