Alex Okafor was one of the New Orleans Saints' most underrated "hits" last year during an offseason in which they nailed just about every personnel move they made.
Defensive end ranked as my No. 1 need for the Saints last year. And Okafor wound up starting all 10 games he played for them, with 4.5 sacks, nine quarterback hits and two forced fumbles after signing a bargain one-year deal in free agency worth between $2 million and $3 million. He played both outside and inside in certain packages, while finally providing a steady presence across from first-team All-Pro Cameron Jordan.
Then Okafor suffered a torn Achilles in November.
And now defensive end is again my No. 1-ranked position need for the Saints this offseason.
Perhaps Okafor will be the answer again. I'm told the 27-year-old is expected to be fully healthy in time for training camp. And it seems like a no-brainer that both Okafor and the Saints should want to re-up again this year in free agency since it was such a good fit for both sides last year.
But even if Okafor comes back healthy, the Saints could still use a more dynamic pass-rushing presence, even if it's in a rotational role with Jordan, Okafor, 2017 rookies Trey Hendrickson and Al-Quadin Muhammad and recently re-signed veteran George Johnson, among others.
Defensive end is one of the biggest game-changing positions in the NFL, which is why it's still No. 1 in my position-by-position breakdown of the Saints' offseason needs:
Current depth chart:
Cameron Jordan. Age 28, signed through 2020. 2018 salary and bonuses: $9.55 million. 2018 salary-cap number: $14.497 million.
Alex Okafor. Age 27, unrestricted free agent.
Trey Hendrickson. Age 23, signed through 2020. 2018 salary and bonuses: $578,000. 2018 salary-cap number: $754,572.
George Johnson. Age 30, signed through 2018. 2018 salary and bonuses: $1.005 million. 2018 salary-cap number: $720,000.
Hau'oli Kikaha. Age 25, signed through 2018. 2018 salary and bonuses: $1.153 million. 2018 salary-cap number: $1.676 million.
Al-Quadin Muhammad. Age 22, signed through 2020. 2018 salary and bonuses: $555,000. 2018 salary-cap number: $592,620.
Kasim Edebali. Age 28, unrestricted free agent.
Alex Jenkins. Age 25, scheduled to become exclusive-rights free agent in 2020. 2018 salary and bonuses: $480,000. 2018 salary-cap number: $480,000.
The problem with the idea of adding a "game-changer" this offseason? There aren't a whole heck of a lot of them out there.
The list of top edge rushing free agents is full of older players and question marks now that DeMarcus Lawrence and Ezekiel Ansah have been franchised; Adrian Clayborn, Julius Peppers and Kony Ealy are among the top possibilities.
And this year's draft class isn't loaded with first-round defensive end prospects, though Boston College's Harold Landry and Ohio State's Sam Hubbard, among others, should be heavily in the conversation for New Orleans at the No. 27 overall pick.
Veteran defensive lineman Muhammad Wilkerson, who is already visiting with the Saints after being released by the New York Jets last week, could be an impact player if he returns to form. And he could potentially play some defensive end in New Orleans, but he would more likely be a defensive tackle in the Saints' preferred 4-3 alignments.
As for the guys already on the roster, Jordan has absolutely been a game-changer for most of his seven-year career in New Orleans, but he took it to another level with his first All-Pro selection in 2017. The 6-foot-4, 287-pounder ranked in the top four in the NFL in sacks (a career-high 13), rejected passes (11), quarterback hits (28) and tackles for loss (17). Only J.J. Watt has had a season like that since at least 2001, according to ESPN Stats & Information.
Hendrickson showed some promise after the Saints drafted him in the third round out of Florida Atlantic, and he could develop into a solid pass-rusher and run defender. Muhammad, a sixth-round pick out of Miami, showed off his pass-rush potential during the preseason, though he played sparingly in the regular season. Johnson proved to be a valuable December pickup, with 2.5 sacks in his first two games, though that hasn't been his specialty throughout his career. Kikaha had another four sacks last season in a limited role, though he continued to battle injuries and inconsistency.
And last but not least, defensive tackle Sheldon Rankins slid over to moonlight as a defensive end after Okafor's injury, and he handled the role well. So it's possible the Saints might use him there even more in 2018 if they add an impact DT like Wilkerson or someone else. That position is much more loaded with intriguing free agents, including Sheldon Richardson, Star Lotulelei and Dontari Poe.