Defensive end was a glaring need for the Saints. And what Okafor needed most (besides a clean bill of health) was a chance for steady snaps as a full-time starter. So he signed a one-year “prove it” deal worth between $2 million-3 million.
And prove it, he has.
The 26-year-old already has a career-high 33 tackles and a career-high two forced fumbles. His three pass defenses are tied for a career high. And his 3.5 sacks are tied for the second-most in his five-year career.
“I think I’ve done well. Obviously still room for improvement. But this is what I envisioned when I decided to come here,” said Okafor, who has started every game and played in a career-high 77 percent of the Saints’ defensive snaps after playing as a rotational backup behind Chandler Jones and Markus Golden in Arizona.
“Like I said at the beginning of the season, I came here because there was an opportunity to play. And I’m glad everything’s working out for us. I’m gonna take advantage of this.”
Okafor, a fourth-round pick in 2013, showed off his potential during his second NFL season, when he had eight sacks in just 13 games in 2014. But a series of nagging biceps and toe injuries stunted his career. And he became a situational backup after the Cardinals traded for Jones.
Okafor said the steady playing time is huge for him because he is “a volume rusher” who benefits from getting to “feel out” the tackle and analyze his sets.
“They give me the snaps, and I produce once I’m in there,” Okafor said.
Another big benefit of his role in New Orleans is that Okafor gets to show off his versatility. The 6-foot-4, 261-pounder has been a very good run defender. And he has been effective while rushing from both the outside edge and when he moves inside at times.
“He’s clearly killing the defensive end game,” said fellow Saints defensive end Cameron Jordan, who probably appreciates Okafor’s arrival more than anyone, since it has kept offenses from avoiding his side.
Jordan is having a monster year himself with seven sacks, 14 quarterback hits, eight tackles for loss, four pass defenses and an interception for a touchdown.
On Sunday against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Jordan was credited for a sack after he finished off quarterback Jameis Winston when Okafor had him by the ankle. A couple weeks ago, Okafor appeared to get credit for making the first hit on a sack and forced fumble that Jordan helped to finish.
Okafor also sacked Winston later in the first half, which appeared to contribute to the quarterback being taken out of the game with his shoulder injury.
“I mean he was destroying whatever tackle was over there,” Jordan said of Okafor's work against Tampa Bay starter Donovan Smith, who also left Sunday’s game early with a knee injury. “Then they brought up the second guy [Kevin Pamphile], and he was destroying him, too. In terms of everything that he was doing on that right side, we were just feeding off of each other, and that’s huge.”
Saints coach Sean Payton credited Okafor for being “steady,” “smart,” “a pro’s pro” and a good leader for the Saints, as well as a difference-maker on the field.
Okafor was obviously a great find for the Saints, who didn't necessarily intend to go bargain-hunting at the defensive end position when free agency began.
It's possible they would have considered going after top free agents like Jason Pierre-Paul, Melvin Ingram or Jones -- but all of them got hit with the franchise tag. Other second-tier options like Nick Perry and Mario Addison were re-signed by their own teams, as well.
At this rate, it will cost a lot more for the Saints to keep Okafor around next year at such a high-demand position. But at the same time, it would be hard to pry him away from such a good situation.
“When you talk about everything that’s happened to Alex, he was injured last year and everything coming from the Cardinals, the ability for him not only to bounce back but to be so strong against the run as well as come and affect the passer, that’s huge,” said Jordan, who also complimented backup ends Hau’oli Kikaha and Trey Hendrickson and has consistently heaped praise on tackles Sheldon Rankins and Tyeler Davison, among others.
“Our D-line is a strength right now, and I can’t be more proud.”