METAIRIE, La. — The New Orleans Saints kicked off the second wave of free agency by addressing their most glaring need, agreeing to terms with former Arizona Cardinals edge rusher Alex Okafor.
The 26-year-old was a rotational pass-rusher in Arizona, but he has the potential to be an upgrade over the guys who have been rotating in that spot with the Saints over the past two years. Okafor had 3.5 sacks last year and a total of 13.5 over the past three years.
Terms: Not immediately available (NFL Network reported one year, up to $3 million)
ESPN 150 ranking: No. 121
Grade B: This was a good Week 2 “value” signing, and I like Okafor’s potential to become more than just a rotational backup. As a bonus, the former fourth-round pick from Texas is one of safety Kenny Vaccaro’s best friends, so the Saints should have a good (though biased) scouting report. I wouldn’t have minded the Saints overpaying for an elite pass-rusher, since they need an upgrade at this position so badly (Sean Payton called it a “must”). But the problem was that none of the elites hit the open market, since Jason Pierre-Paul, Melvin Ingram and Chandler Jones all were locked up with franchise tags.
What it means: Okafor (6-foot-4, 261 pounds) has enough size to defend the run as well as rush the passer, and his production could rise with more opportunities. ESPN Cardinals reporter Josh Weinfuss wrote that “he is a solid role player who can spell any edge rusher in the league without much of a drop-off.” Even if Okafor is penciled in as New Orleans’ starting defensive end on the weakside edge, this position should remain a priority early in the draft — possibly with the No. 11 pick. The Saints are hoping to get third-year pass-rusher Hau’oli Kikaha back in the rotation after he recovers from last summer’s ACL injury. They have already let one of their former pass-rushers go, with Kasim Edebali signing with the Denver Broncos. It remains to be seen if they will bring back free-agent veterans Paul Kruger or Darryl Tapp.
What’s the risk? “Risk” probably isn’t the right word since this will be a minimal deal. You could argue that the Saints are rolling the dice by not investing more heavily in a proven starter. Okafor played only 214 snaps in 15 games last year because of the Cardinals’ addition of Jones and the emergence of Markus Golden. He has a total of just 5.5 sacks over the past two years after flashing with eight sacks and an interception in 2014.