As we’ve already told you, football can be hard to understand. Playbooks weigh as much as physics textbooks, and when you hear a quarterback barking in the huddle, it can sound like you’ve intercepted an alien transmission. For there to be order in the chaos, the game requires people who have mastered its specifics. Welcome to Masterminds Week, where we’ll spotlight those who have shown expertise in various aspects of the sport—from the big and all-encompassing to the random and hyperspecific.
In any discussion about the NFL’s best pass rushers, a host of usual suspects comes up. It’ll start with the biggest names, like Von Miller, J.J. Watt, Aaron Donald, and Khalil Mack. Then it will move to aging legends like Julius Peppers and Cameron Wake, or underrateds like Michael Bennett or Carlos Dunlap, or the next generation—guys like Vic Beasley Jr., Danielle Hunter, and Joey Bosa. But in the pantheon of great pass rushers, you rarely hear Saints defensive end Cameron Jordan mentioned—in fact, most people outside of New Orleans and Berkeley probably still get him mixed up with former Dolphins and Browns tight end Jordan Cameron. I mean, I had to double-check to make sure I was getting the order of his names right, too.
But the lack of name recognition aside, [checks notes] first-name-Cameron last-name-Jordan is a mastermind of angles, handwork, and leverage. With an explosive first step, a powerful trademark swim move, and a nonstop motor, he’s one of the most consistent and prolific pass rushers in the league. Jordan has been hiding in plain sight as one of the best all-around defensive players in the game.
A few reasons for Jordan’s lack of recognition come to mind. First, he’s stranded on a completely terrible defense, a group that finished second-to-last in Football Outsiders DVOA last season, dead last in 2015, and second-to-last in 2014. (Sidenote: My god, the Saints defense has been really bad the past three years.) Second, raw sack numbers are a really big deal in the NFL. Sacks (and their celebratory dances) are sexy. Sacks get you money, they get you recognition, they get you into highlight reels, and they get you name-dropped on SportsCenter and NFL RedZone. But despite a 10-sack 2015 season (which tied for 15th in the league), Jordan regressed to an underwhelming 7.5 sacks last year (tied for 31st), and a breakthrough into superstardom—or even a spot in the Pro Bowl or on the NFL’s Top-100 players list—didn’t materialize.
But Jordan’s low sack total last year really isn’t a great excuse for his continued lack of attention, as Jordan actually has been one of the league’s most prolific sack-makers over the past four seasons, with a combined 45.5 of them since 2012. That’s ninth-most league-wide, ahead of players like Peppers, Bennett, Dunlap, Mario Williams, Cliff Avril, Clay Matthews, the recently retired DeMarcus Ware, Tamba Hali, Jason Pierre-Paul, Olivier Vernon, Melvin Ingram, Dwight Freeney, and Robert Mathis, among others. Jordan’s been a top-10 sack-producer over the past four years, but without a single eye-grabbing season to his name, he hasn’t seen much of the hype and glory that typically goes along with being a star at his position.
And sure, sacks are fun, and yeah, they’re important, but they’re certainly not the only measure of an outstanding defensive lineman. As my Ringer colleague Kevin Clark pointed out earlier this month, the league’s sack rate hit an all-time low last year as teams continue to spread the field and get the ball out quicker and quicker. With sack rates down, a statistic that was already based on small sample sizes has become an increasingly inadequate measure of the quality of a pass rusher. The amount of pressure a defender gets on the quarterback is ultimately the most important thing. Getting a QB to the ground is ideal, but failing that, pass rushers must get him off his spot, make him rush his throw, and force him to make mistakes. In other words, pressure him.
By that standard, Jordan was among the elite last year. There’s no one official “pressure” statistic, but a few outlets track a number of subjective metrics for affecting the quarterback. The Football Outsiders Almanac credited Jordan with 52 quarterback hurries (second in the NFL), 19 quarterback hits (sixth), and 27 quarterback knockdowns (eighth), while Pro Football Focus had him with 79 pressures (tied for fifth) on the year. Whichever metric you choose, the numbers all confirm what our eyes see: that Jordan is a consistent disruptor and havoc-creator in the backfield. Oh, and by the way, he was just as good against the run, finishing tied for the league lead in tackles for a loss and tied for fifth among edge defenders in defeats.
At 6-foot-4, 287 pounds, the Saints’ underrated defensive end brings elite size and athleticism to the field, and he has the quickness and burst to rush from the outside and the strength and power to set the edge against the run. The Saints even rush him from the inside at times. His versatility has meant he consistently plays on all three downs, and he clocked in for 963 snaps in 2017, or 92 percent of New Orleans’ total defensive plays.
Jordan does a little bit of everything. On one snap, he’ll bend around the corner to attack an offensive tackle’s outside shoulder, creating pressure on the quarterback. Then, on the next, he’ll use one of the most devastatingly quick club-over pass-rush moves I’ve seen, pushing his opponent one way with one arm while swim-moving with the other in order to get past him and into the backfield. The consistency in which you see offensive linemen flail forward as Jordan rushes past them is incredible.
At other times, he’ll convert his speed into power, goading the offensive lineman into believing he’s going outside before bull-rushing straight through him and into the quarterback.
Even when teams design plays to get the ball out of the quarterback’s hand quickly, Jordan has an uncanny knack for raising his hands and deflecting the pass.
Against the run, Jordan displays an impressive combination of strength, patience, and vision. He’ll grapple with his opponent, getting up underneath their pads to control them, but all the while, keeping his eyes in the backfield so he can disengage at the exact right moment and make a tackle.
He’s also one of the strongest edge rushers in the league, and when you flip on his tape, there’s a steady stream of snaps where he completely manhandles the tackle or tight end in front of him in the run game. And, when I say manhandle, that’s really not hyperbole.
Sometimes it just doesn’t even look fair.
Despite a continuous flow of dominant plays, Jordan’s reputation seems to be tied, at least somewhat, to the overall performance of the Saints defense. The team has finally done some work to rectify that this offseason, sinking some resources into fixing a leaky pass defense and a subpar run-stopping group. They added a pair of free-agent linebackers in A.J. Klein and Manti Te’o, spent first- and second-rounders on some secondary help in cornerback Marshon Lattimore and safety Marcus Williams, and then added to that with a pair of third-round picks on defense in linebacker Alex Anzalone and pass rusher Trey Hendrickson. With the boost these players provide, plus a little better luck in the health department (and no, they haven’t gotten off to a good start with that, having already lost Nick Fairley and Delvin Breaux), the Saints defense could make a big leap forward in 2017.
And if they do, and the rest of the country finally starts to appreciate the 28-year-old Saints pass rusher for what he is, the underrated playmaker could finally end up getting his due. But even if they don’t, I’m still going to enjoy watching him play.