The Saints are betting that someone is going to break out this season.
Losing Trey Hendrickson created a void on the defensive line that does not currently have an obvious, guaranteed solution. There are options. Plenty, actually, and all of them possess intriguing upside and potential. But there are no guarantees that those players will deliver.
Despite flashing at times throughout his first three seasons, Marcus Davenport is yet to turn all the almost moments into meaningful production, but the team still needs a third pass rusher even if he delivers. Tanoh Kpassagnon recently signed and has some upside, but he needs to show more before being counted upon to carry a heavy load.
That leads to Carl Granderson. The undrafted player has steadily progressed during his first two seasons in the league and looks like he could be ready to make the kind of leap that Hendrickson took last season. If he does, that would alleviate many of the Saints’ concerns at edge rusher and ensure the defense doesn’t take a step back this season.
Expecting a player to go from five sacks to double digits is a lot. In many cases, it is an unreasonable expectation, but Granderson provided enough highlights last season to think that he might just be scratching the surface of his potential.
Granderson finished last season with 20 total pressures and five sacks on about 170 pass rushes. But the thing about pressure is that not all of them are created equally. If a player gets into the quarterback’s halo and impacts the play ever so slightly, that gets scored as a pressure and counts the same as someone who gets to the quarterback and logs a hit.
Five of Granderson’s pressures were sacks, and seven were quarterback hits. Compare that with Davenport. The former first-round pick actually created pressure at a higher rate than Granderson (14% vs. 11.7%), but he only had 1 ½ sacks and seven hits on 249 pass rushes. When Granderson gets there, he gets there quickly and makes an impact.
Being that close to the quarterback means that more of his “almost” plays will convert to actual production. Davenport’s overall pressure rate has created optimism about his future and led to the belief that he was on the cusp of breaking out every season, but at some point, you have to start getting your hands on the quarterback. Granderson is doing that.
Granderson and the man he’ll be attempting to replace, Hendrickson, are different pass rushers. Granderson is more of a speed guy, someone who will beat an offensive tackle with a devastatingly quick initial move. Hendrickson was more of a power player, looking to gain leverage and win with power and technique. An excellent example of this: Granderson only had two pressures using bullrushes last season. Hendrickson had 15.
That’s not to say Granderson can’t win with power. He had a few moves last season, like the one illustrated below, where he got leverage on someone and powered through (thanks to a little trip from Hendrickson on this one, too). But that isn’t where he is at his best – at least not yet.
Granderson did the bulk of his damage last year with inside moves (five pressures) and outside moves (nine total pressures). In some of these moments, he looks special, borderline elite. Those moments are what creates the difference between Granderson and some other prospects. He might not deliver on all of his potential, but he has some exceptional traits that could lead him to sustained success.
For starters, his spin move is already something worth studying. When Granderson has the time and space to hit one, there isn’t much an offensive tackle can do. His best uses of it last year came on an interception against Atlanta and a hit against Minnesota. That should show up more often with more opportunities to rush the passer.
There are also plays where Granderson’s strength and speed show he can find a way to win even when things aren’t schemed for him. We’re dabbling in small samples here, but he beat a double team to get a sack against Kansas City. Granderson had five pressures and a sack on the 40 plays where he saw a double team or extra attention.
If the expectation is for Granderson to end up with 13 sacks, then there probably will be a sense of disappointment among many. The same goes for the Bengals if they’re expecting the same from Hendrickson. But if Granderson gets to rush the passer 220-250 times next season, which is the area Hendrickson was in, he should be able to build on last season and start to approach double-digit sack totals.
If he does that, it will help this team cover for what was lost. But the real question for the defensive line isn’t Granderson or even Kpassagnon. It’s Davenport. But at this point, there is no longer any point in projecting what he might or might not do. Everything seems to be there for him except the actual production.