The New Orleans Saints have been quietly confident in their stable of young edge rushers all offseason, leaving the spot untouched in both the draft and free agency, even after second-year starter Hau’oli Kikaha went down with a torn ACL during organized team activities.
Two of their options at the position remain largely unproven. Obum Gwacham and Davis Tull both possess freakish athletic capabilities, but the pair also have only 97 total NFL snaps between them, leaving their potential contribution more projection than production at this point.
Then there’s Kasim Edebali, the former undrafted defensive end from Boston College who has become a key staple of the Saints defensive line without much fanfare. Edebali finished second on the team with five sacks last season in just 361 defensive snaps, and heading into his third year, the Saints say he’s only getting better.
“He’s got nothing but an upward arrow for him,” fellow defensive end Cam Jordan said. “If he gets full-time reps, then you’re going to see full-time ability. With the amount of reps he had last year, he ended up with five sacks, so we’ll see what he gets with full-time reps.”
Kikaha’s injury has shifted the spotlight in the direction of Edebali — and by extension, Gwacham and Tull — heading into the rest of the summer.
New Orleans spent the offseason upgrading its interior pass rush, but Kikaha was expected to provide a bookend to Jordan’s Pro Bowl production. When he went down, there was reason to assume the Saints might try to find a gem in the remaining bargain bin of free agency.
So far, the Saints have remained quiet.
“I think there’s that initial knee jerk of ‘Well, you have to go sign someone,’ ” coach Sean Payton said. “You have to be careful that the vision’s clear. Right now, we’re going to work on the guys that are here and obviously pay attention to any type of player that might be able to help us that isn’t signed.”
Edebali, a native of Germany, has come a long way in two seasons. First noticed when he burst onto the scene with two sacks in a blowout 2014 win over Aaron Rodgers and the Green Bay Packers, Edebali became a jack of all trades for the Saints last year, lining up all over the defensive line in pass-rush situations despite his 245-pound frame. Used primarily at defensive end, Edebali has enough strength that he often moved inside in New Orleans’ NASCAR package.
Edebali even learned a little linebacker last season, although he rarely lined up on the strong side during the season.
“He’s done that for us,” pass rush assistant Brian Young said. “He’s been out there at end when we do some stuff, we’ve actually moved him inside for some of the sub-rush, because of his quickness.”
Edebali, like the rest of the New Orleans edge rushers, has put on some weight this offseason, bulking up the 250-pound range to play a true defensive end spot.
But weight is less of an issue for Edebali than some. He’s already shown he’s strong enough to play well above his weight.
“The coaches told me, ‘Whatever we need you to do, we know you can do it,’ ” Edebali said. “That’s kind of what I put my hat on.”
For that reason, Edebali has had relatively little time to focus on his natural position.
Now, with Kikaha out, Edebali is likely the front-runner to start at the “open” end spot in Dennis Allen’s defense, lining up wide on the weak side and creating pressure with more speed.
Being able to focus on one position should help him continue his rapid improvement since he entered the NFL.
“That’s my goal, that’s what I’m building to,” Edebali said. “I’m more confident, I know what’s going on. I remember last year, I was very versatile, I was an end, d-tackle, I was everywhere on the d-line. I’m just ready, wherever my role’s going to be, to make another jump.”
Edebali was unable to practice in the spring, recovering from an unspecified injury that left him running gassers during minicamp but unable to participate in any team work.
By the time the Saints broke free for the summer, Edebali was already almost back to work. He’s not about to let a minor injury get in the way of his rise.
“I know I’ll be ready for training camp,” Edebali said. “I just want to make sure I’m 100 percent when it matters.”