Ryan Nielsen enters his fourth season as New Orleans' defensive line coach in 2020. In 2019, New Orleans ranked third in the NFL with 51 sacks with 38.5 of them coming from the defensive line. New Orleans also ranked fourth in the NFL in opponent yards rushing per game (91.3). Defensive end Cameron Jordan was instrumental in the defense's success as he tallied a career-high 15.5 sacks, ranked third in the NFL and collected one more in the postseason. Second-year defensive end Marcus Davenport finished second on the team with six sacks and defensive end Trey Hendrickson added a career-high 4.5 takedowns. Nielsen's unit looks to build on its success heading into the 2020 campaign.
Q: What has this offseason been like for you and just how things are totally different than how they usually are?
Nielsen: Well look, it is what it is. I think we've done the best that we can do with the situation that's going on. What I mean is we've had great participation from our veterans in these online meetings. I've been very pleased with the interaction and just the one-on-one conversations with the guys, getting the feedback of how it's going. We're getting a lot of teaching time. We're watching a lot of tape, we're doing a lot of installations and I just feel the only thing that's a little bit different is obviously we are not around each other. So I don't get the immediate feedback and interaction as you would get when you're with the players, but I feel everything else from the time that we've had to meet, the installation, the material, I feel pretty good about it. The real test will be when we all get back together to see how it worked. When we start camp and we're with the players to see how much the retention (has worked), but as of right now, I feel very good about it.
Q: I know with your position group technique is very important. You talk about hand placement and footwork and everything. Has it been sort of frustrating that you haven't been able to get that hands on work so far?
Nielsen: Well, I love individual (periods) in practice. Like that's one of my favorite things, other than playing on Sunday with the guys, but I will say this, the meetings have been structured where the first part of the meeting has been more of the installation on like what we're doing. And the second part of the meeting, what we've done is we've taken films '17, '18, and '19, and we've watched certain fundamentals and techniques and really dissected how to do it on the film. So it's not just the installation part, but here's what we're doing and then here's how to do it. I feel doing it like that, it's been a good change of pace in the meeting and we've really got to spend some time on what's really worked for us at the Saints at all positions. So that's been a kind of a cool, and then we'll get feedback, I'll talk to the guys individually every once in a while. What'd you think about this meeting? So they're constantly giving me feedback of, maybe we can do this a little bit better, or I liked how you did this list, let's cover that again. I'm chomping at the bit to get back with these guys. I can't wait. Like I said, I love the individual part, but I do feel that we've got a lot accomplished, as much as we can right now.
Q: When you guys brought (Marcus) Davenport in, the talk about him was him being raw and having room for growth. Two years into it now, how far down do you feel like you've gotten into that potential and how much more room is there for him to keep getting better?
Nielsen: He's definitely has got some room to get better and it's there, the potential and the growth is there. I think that he made a big step last season. There's some games where he was playing lights out. I really feel really good about a few games where he took the next step. Talking to him, I think his confidence is better this offseason. He's working hard and I know he had a couple of injuries, but he's put the work in. Every time I talk to him, he's saying all the right things, he's doing the right things. So look, it's year three. Yep, we expect more from him, as we do with everybody else. So I'm excited to start working with Marcus, but there is some growth and there's some things that we've just got to do a little bit better and we'll work on that.
Q: So that injury hasn't held him back too much, this offseason he's getting in the work he needs to get?
Nielsen: Well, with the rehab and obviously when you have an injury, you're not training that part of the body as much as you can. But I do feel he's done the best that he can with his rehab and everything that I've been with the trainers that, the injury reports that we've been talking about is look, he's busting his butt this offseason and he's really putting the work in to come back in the best shape that he's ever been in.
Q: Is Sheldon Rankins in a similar situation?
Nielsen: I think Sheldon, same thing. The thing with Sheldon is he has had it (an injury) before, so he's kind of known what to expect a little bit. So he has got a little bit of an advantage with his injury, but again, talking to him, he is working hard. He feels great. I talked to him the other day. He feels really good mentally. He's in a really good place. One of the things for when you're older in the system, he's heard all the same terminology now and we've worked on a lot of the same things. It's going to be easier for him to come back and pick it up a little bit faster. So again, really excited for him to get back and work with him as well.
Q: You kind of touched on (Marcus) Davenport, mentioning some of the areas (for improvement). Is there like one specific thing that you've really kind of keyed in on, this is something that we're gonna get you better at this year?
Nielsen: I think there's a few one things that we could focus on. Some of the approaches that we take is let's get better at this and maybe practice one, and then we'll get better at this in practice two, and take that approach. And if we need to come back and maybe fix some pass rush or work on some pass rush or run fundamentals, things like that, then we will. There's a couple of things, but it's nothing that he can't do or obtain. It's very, look, there are certain things that we've just got to maybe drill a little bit. I have got to help him more in individual. We've got to work on a couple more things, but I do feel that he is as eager as possible to get back and get going. That's exciting to me, man, he really wants to get better at these things that we've got to get better at.
Q: What's it like when you're working with a guy like Cam Jordan, who's pretty much dominated the past three years? I don't know if he has much room for improvement, but I mean, what do you say to a guy like that?
Nielsen: I love Cam. He is fun to be around and he's got a great personality. He's never had a bad day in his life and that's one of the best things. He always shows up, he's the same every day. When you go into the meeting and you know what you are going to get from your players, that is, to me, when I walk in and Cam has got a smile on his face and it is the same Cam every day. I love that part of him and then working with them, I mean, what a talent, there is nothing he cannot do. He's shown he can sack the quarterback. He can play the run. It's really fun just to continue to work the fundamentals and technique with them (the whole group) just to try to raise his game a tick better. If we can get him a tick (better) and everybody gets just a little bit better, we will be a better football team. He takes it on himself to say, look, I can get better. And he'll tell you guys, there's some things I can get better at and that's one of the things that excites me. There is a little bit left in there, but after the three seasons he's had in a row, it's just fun to be around at practice and the energy and leadership he brings. It makes coaching the guys a lot easier.
Q: Last year, I talked to Cam about sack dances and apparently he's even taken it upon himself to kind of police the guys and make sure they're not burning too much energy. Is that one of those examples you're talking about?
Nielsen: Well, look, if we can get one, we can get two, right? So let's not burn ourselves out on just getting one. He's good with that. I think that's a little bit, he just has fun with the guys, and look, we want to have fun, too, when we're playing ball. So that's just kind of one of the things that they give each other a hard time about, but listen, I like those conversations now. Let's keep having them. Let's keep raising those numbers and talking about are we going to dance or are we not going to dance? Those are good problems to have.
Q: This team in the past few seasons always seems to found some guys that have been contributors on the D-line that are undrafted. I wanted to ask you about Malcolm Roach, a guy out of Texas, what's something that you guys liked about him and a reason that you wanted to bring him in?
Nielsen: I think he fits what we do in terms of his ability very well. That is kind of one of the things that when we look at these guys we bring in is, look, obviously they have had good college careers, what do we do and how does it fit together? I think he is extremely explosive, a smart player. I really like that about him. His intelligence, he sees things when you watch his games at Texas. I think he's an equally good pass rusher as a run defender. His game is not skewed one way or another. So when we can get a player like that, and look, he's close to home now (Baton Rouge native), he's going to have a lot of motivation to make this football team. That's another thing that, man, that's pretty cool. So I see some things there. I would have been able to tell you a lot more if we were practicing right now, but we've just been on these meetings. He's been great in the meetings. He's been asking the right questions. I really like what I see from him so far and what I've seen on tape. He's just another guy that, look, we'll know more about after two weeks in camp, but I do think we got the right guy here.
Q: Shy Tuttle was in a very similar position last year coming in undrafted and then he kind of made a name for himself and is kind of a cult hero for what he did to Matt Ryan in the Atlanta game on Thanksgiving night. What's the vision for him moving forward and what have you seen from him this offseason?
Nielsen: Well look, I think Shy has had a good offseason. I think he's really working. I would like to see him take the next step in his game, be a little bit more aware, be a little bit quicker to see blocks, see angles of departure, be just one-step faster than he was last year, year two, just the maturing of a player. That's in all aspects, that's in the run and as a pass rusher. I think you'll see that. He's got some confidence now, you know what he did toward the end of the year and he got better. It seemed like he got better every single week. If we can just take where he was at the end and just work on that and just one tick better, I think he'll have another solid season for us.