Who plays end, who plays outside linebacker, and who plays nose isn't going to be exact science at the moment with the team's switch to a 3-4. The Saints have some "tweeners" on their roster that could fit at multiple positions, which makes this exercise challenging. I'll rope the guys at the positions I think they likely stick (ie Will Smith at OLB) though, starting here with defensive end. The battle for playing time should be intense at this position. Here are the players:
Cam Jordan: Because he is an excellent run defender, the 3-4 seems like a better fit for his skills, though he's held his on in the 4-3 the past two seasons. In year one he was excellent against the run, and in year two he really developed his pass rushing ability nicely finishing with 8 sacks. He's been durable, starting 31 of 32 games and the former 1st round pick is a big part of the team's future. He made a nice jump in improvement from year one to year two, and hopefully he can continue on that upward trend with a change to a scheme that should fit his skills better. He will definitely be a starter and on the roster.
Kenyon Coleman: Coleman is a run stuffing specialist that played for Rob Ryan in Dallas. Ryan called him the best run stopping 3-4 defensive end in the NFL, and Pro Football Focus wasn't far off from agreeing with him. At first impression I found that comment by Ryan to be absurd but it turns out it may not be that crazy after all. Coleman is currently the favorite to start opposite Jordan, and he will make the roster. At 34 he's no spring chicken, though, and with 13.5 sacks in 11 seasons it's fair to assume pass rushing is not something he even remotely brings to the table.
Tom Johnson: He was an undersized 4-3 defensive tackle with a really nice first quick step on the interior. He's one of the few guys on defense the past two years, when healthy, that I've been impressed with. I also think a switch to 3-4 and moving him to end utilizes his skills a bit better. On passing downs I few him as a guy that would spell Coleman. He's gotten 3 sacks in two seasons of spot duty at DT, but lots of hurries and some nice disruption. Johnson took an unlikely path to being a role player on this team as he went undrafted and has played in NFL Europe, Arena Football and the CFL. He's likely to make the team.
Akiem Hicks: Hicks has the quickness to play end and the size to play nose in this scheme, which makes him very valuable. The 3rd round pick last year was very impressive in spot duty and will continue to develop. I'll be shocked if he doesn't make the team and make a significant impact. I truly believe he's a star in the making, maybe even with more potential than Cam Jordan based on what I've seen.
Jay Richardson: Richardson was a 5th round pick by the Raiders in 2007 and has the advantage of having played under Ryan and knowing his scheme. The Saints are Richardson's fourth team as he's bounced around the league for a bit as a spot role player. He has 7 career sacks as a sub, so he can bring a little pass rushing. I think he has a shot based on his familiarity with Ryan, but his grading on PFF was entirely miserable.
Baraka Atkins: Since being drafted in the 4th round in 2007 by the Seahawks, Atkins has bounced around the league and the Saints are his sixth team. He has two career sacks and has played a bit on special teams. Atkins was signed based on impressing the staff at the rookie minicamp. He was in Cowboys training camp last year, so he's another guy Ryan is familiar with. He's a long shot.
Glenn Foster: An undrafted rookie free agent out of Illinois, Foster is a real long shot to make the roster based on all the veteran Ryan disciples ahead of him. He played DT in college but seems a better fit in the 3-4 at end.
Predition: Coleman and Jordan are the starters, but don't be shocked if Akiem Hicks ends up starting. I love his potential. I think the Saints keep five ends at most, and maybe just four. I think Johnson and Hicks are the other two that stay, with Johnson standing on slightly less firm ground. Richardson probably pushes for that bubble fifth spot, but I think the Saints end up keeping just four.
Well you said it. There is a lot of hybrid things going on. I Thing the saints will keep 4 DEs and 2 NTs, and 5 OLBs, 3 ILBs but If one of the DEs shows a lot of OLB potential and an OLB might be an ILB as depth... then they will keep a 5th DE. The top 4 I agree with.
This is nice write up. While I'm not sure our D-Line will get much pressure on the QB this year, I'm hoping the line will atleast improve against the run.