Cameron Jordan's sack surge has Saints believing '20 is attainable'

METAIRIE, La. -- Somehow, Cameron Jordan just keeps raising the bar.

It seemed like the New Orleans Saints defensive end might have reached a peak in 2017, in his seventh NFL season, when he earned first-team All-Pro honors for the first time and recorded a rare feat that he dubbed a “triple-double” (double-digit sacks, tackles for loss and batted passes).

But now, at age 30, Jordan is aiming higher. After a career-high four sacks in front of a prime-time audience on Thanksgiving night against the Atlanta Falcons, Jordan ranks second in the league with a career-high 13.5 and second in Saints history with 85 sacks.

And suddenly things like the NFL Defensive Player of the Year, the Pro Football Hall of Fame and 20 sacks in a season don’t seem like exaggerated goals. The NFL record is 22.5, set by Michael Strahan in 2001.

“Twenty is attainable for a guy like that, for sure,” Saints defensive tackle Sheldon Rankins said.

“Me and Cam speak about that stuff all the time in the offseason. That’s his mythical thing, he’s always wanted to reach a 20-piece," Rankins said. "Listen, when you go for four, you put yourself in a position where that’s attainable with four games left. Now obviously he has to do the work, and we gotta help him a little bit. But it’s definitely attainable.

“But if he hits it, I need a gift. I need a very nice gift from Cam.”

Jordan then chimed in from a few lockers down, insisting he would deliver, with Rankins replying, “I’ve played some part in your historic chase you’ve got going on.”

Jordan has always been one of the most playful characters inside the Saints’ locker room -- or any locker room, for that matter. He quickly shifts from serious to sarcastic on most any subject.

So naturally when asked about Rankins’ “20 is attainable” declaration, Jordan started by saying, “I’ve never said anything other than I want a Super Bowl. I don’t care about personal accolades. I’m gunning for everything and plus some. As long as my D-line is playing good and my defense is playing better, I couldn't care less about myself.”

But then he quickly smiled and added, "If it happens, then more the merrier this offseason.”

Jordan has also never been shy about lamenting the sacks that got away.

When asked about his four sacks after Thursday’s game, Jordan said, “It hurts because I could’ve had five. There was one where I had him dead to rights and he sort of bubbled out."

Jordan now has 18 sacks in his career against Matt Ryan, which is the most sacks by a player on a single quarterback since sacks became official in 1982, according to Elias.

"You try to make these nights special," Jordan said. "You know, you only have so many opportunities available.”

Whatever is driving Jordan, it’s clearly working.

The former first-round draft pick from Cal didn’t slow down after he started getting recognized with All-Pro and Pro Bowl honors and appearing on everyone’s top-100 lists. And he certainly hasn’t missed a beat since signing a three-year extension with the Saints this offseason worth between $17.5 million and $18.5 million per year -- including some financial incentives for sack totals. Jordan has already earned a $250,000 base-salary escalator for next year for hitting 13 sacks, and he would get another $500,000 if he reaches 15 and another $500,000 for 17.

Jordan, whose father Steve was a six-time Pro Bowl tight end for the Minnesota Vikings over the course of 13 seasons, has talked a lot in recent years about his desire to keep thriving into a second decade. He has pointed to other standout defensive linemen such as Cameron Wake, Michael Bennett, Calais Campbell and former Saints teammate/mentor Will Smith as guys who peaked later in their careers.

“His play has been outstanding [for years],” Saints coach Sean Payton said. “Man, he’s someone who trains tirelessly. He’s a tremendous worker. He’s got great stamina. And he’s been extremely consistent.

“He’s worked extremely hard each offseason. And he’s someone that I think is an extremely versatile player.”

Versatility has always been Jordan’s calling card as a 6-foot-4, 287-pounder who has moved around from his normal position of 4-3 end to defensive tackle to 3-4 edge rusher under different defensive coordinators in New Orleans. His run defense has always been an underrated strength. His knack for batting down passes is uncanny. He plays more snaps than most defensive linemen -- ranking second in the NFL behind only Aaron Donald this year. Jordan ranks first since 2011.

And, of course, he can pile up the sacks in bunches.

“He’s strong, and that becomes a challenge to deal with,” Payton said. “He’s got length; I think that’s a challenge to deal with. And I think he’s got bend and flexibility -- those attributes that are difficult to deal with, especially playing at that position.”

Rankins referenced another defensive end who thrived late into his career when he said, “I always tell people [Jordan] is the best defensive end I’ve seen besides Julius Peppers.

“Julius Peppers was a freak of nature,” Rankins said. “But Cam just pound for pound, play for play, he’s the best to ever do it in my eyes.”