NFL sack leaders: Aaron Donald, Myles Garrett and Saints' Trey Hendrickson?

METAIRIE, La. -- Frankly, not even the New Orleans Saints saw this coming.

If they knew that fourth-year defensive end Trey Hendrickson was about to rattle off 7.5 sacks in the first eight games of this season -- ranking him third in the NFL behind only superstars Aaron Donald and Myles Garrett -- then maybe they wouldn’t have tried so hard to sign Jadeveon Clowney before Week 1.

What’s that they say about the moves that you don’t make?

Obviously Hendrickson’s breakout has come at the perfect time. The 6-foot-4, 270-pounder, who was drafted in the third round out of Florida Atlantic in 2017, stepped up in a huge way when former Saints first-round pick Marcus Davenport missed the first four games with injuries.

And Hendrickson has continued to make teams pay for devoting too much attention to five-time Pro Bowler Cameron Jordan on the other side of the line. He put an exclamation point on his season Sunday night by sacking Tom Brady on three straight plays (one of which was nullified by a penalty) during the Saints’ 38-3 rout of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

Hendrickson also sacked Brady in Week 1 -- after which Tampa Bay coach Bruce Arians referred to him as the “easiest guy to block” on New Orleans’ defensive line.

But Hendrickson didn’t bite this week when asked if that added motivation to the rematch.

“No, what I can say is I'm blessed to have the opportunity to prove my supporters right, the people that believe in me, and prove that people that don't believe me wrong,” Hendrickson said.

Hendrickson also didn’t bat an eye when someone rattled off the list of the NFL’s top three sack leaders to him: Donald, Garrett, Hendrickson.

"Oh, well, the work's not done. We're only eight games in. So I'm hungry. I don't think anybody in a race wants to take third,” Hendrickson said. “But that's why I'm fortunate enough to have an opportunity to keep getting after ‘em these next eight games."

It’s not like Hendrickson has come completely out of nowhere. He was a part of the Saints’ line rotation over his first three seasons, with a total of 7.5 sacks in 34 games played, including the playoffs. Although he was a healthy inactive for much of the 2018 season, he played almost every game in 2019. And he started the first four games of his career at the end of last season while Davenport was hurt -- recording a sack in New Orleans’ playoff loss to the Minnesota Vikings.

But Hendrickson has clearly stepped things up this year. He has started all eight games and has continued to play about 60% of New Orleans’ defensive snaps, even after Davenport returned in Week 5.

Now all together, that trio has boosted a Saints pass rush that got off to a slow start. Jordan still has just 2.5 sacks this season. But the Saints’ overall pressure has picked up -- with the highlight probably coming Sunday night when both Davenport and Jordan tipped a pass by Brady that was intercepted by defensive tackle David Onyemata.

“Trey has really come on strong the last two years,” Jordan said earlier this season. “It’s great for him to finally get some of the recognition that he so rightfully deserves. And I think he’s still got a lot more in his bag."

Hendrickson’s breakout has come at a great time for him personally, too. He is scheduled to be an unrestricted free agent after this season. Now, instead of being the forgotten guy from New Orleans’ remarkable 2017 draft class that also included Alvin Kamara, Marshon Lattimore, Ryan Ramczyk, Marcus Williams and Alex Anzalone -- Hendrickson could also be in line for a big payday.

Hendrickson has always pointed to the lessons he has learned from veterans such as Jordan and former Saints veteran Alex Okafor in helping his development.

He also pointed to some major developments that helped him off the field this year -- getting married this past summer to “the love of my life” and the two of them together growing closer to Jesus Christ.

“So through that, I really do feel a pull in the right direction,” Hendrickson said. “You know, off the field and everything from football, getting stronger, getting faster, that's always a goal. But to truly have something special off the field, I've been fortunate to be a part of."

Hendrickson has always had a relentless energy level -- to the point where he earned a bit of a negative reputation as a “tempo violator” early in his career for things like going full speed during walkthroughs and adding verbal jabs after reps.

But teammates have praised him for his maturity with each passing year. And coach Sean Payton has also stressed that another big key for Hendrickson was getting to the “perfect weight and strength” after he got a bit light in 2018.

“He’s playing well. Man, he’s really done a great job for us,” Payton said. “He’s a tremendous worker. He’s a smart player. One of his great traits is his energy and effort. … He’s strong.

“And we’ve got a good rotation going. [Defensive line coach Ryan Nielsen] and those guys, when you look at the total snap counts they’re playing, it requires a lot of energy. And I think those guys are in a good rotation.”

That goes for the Saints’ run defense, as well -- which has quietly emerged as one of the best in football.

Thanks to All-Pros like Jordan and linebacker Demario Davis and other unheralded guys such as Onyemata (who earned a big payday in free agency this past offseason), the Saints rank second in the NFL in run defense this year, allowing 80.3 yards per game. They rank first in the NFL since the start of the 2018 season, allowing 84.7 yards per game.

And now they're on the brink of NFL history. If they hold the San Francisco 49ers without a 100-yard rusher on Sunday, they will extend their streak to 52 consecutive games, including the playoffs. According to the Elias Sports Bureau, that would be the longest streak in the Super Bowl era.

New Orleans’ run defense made its most emphatic statement yet on Sunday night at Tampa, holding the Bucs to a total of eight rushing yards on five carries, including a QB kneel-down to end the game.

“I thought Sunday night was really a great example of their D-line depth,” said ESPN analyst Mike Tannenbaum, a longtime former executive with the New York Jets and Miami Dolphins who joked that he had “20 years of scar tissue from competing against Tom Brady.”

“Their defensive front, literally at every position, won their battles," Tannenbaum said. "The whole idea against Tom Brady is to press the pocket. They did that and really made Tom uncomfortable.”