Cameron Jordan had a breakout season for a defense that broke down.
His dramatic improvement at defensive end last year was rendered meaningless as the Saints shattered the NFL record for yards allowed. After that head-shaking experience, he anticipates a much more satisfying follow-up.
“We were the worst in the league, so it doesn’t even matter how much of a bright spot I was,” he said. “That’s not something you can rest your head on easily at night. This year, I’m looking forward to having a great defense and keeping the ball rolling.”
All signs point to him holding up his end of the bargain.
Jordan’s progress has been unmistakable since the Saints took him with the 24th pick of the 2011 draft. Learning on the job as a rookie starter, the team credited him with 59 tackles, one sack and no forced fumbles.
His tackles increased to 76 in 2012, but his real improvement came in big plays. He led the Saints with eight sacks and three forced fumbles, including a huge takeaway on fourth-and-goal as New Orleans won at Tampa Bay in October.
Two weeks later, he sacked Philadelphia’s Michael Vick three times for his first multi-sack game, forcing another fumble. He stripped Tampa Bay’s Josh Freeman and recovered the fumble to set up a touchdown in a 41-0 December shutout that was the defense’s lone highlight performance.
He maintained that production this preseason with seven tackles, two sacks for 18 yards and four quarterback hits.
“He’s playing at a very high level,” coach Sean Payton said. “His production a year ago was good and, for me, a year removed and watching him in this training camp, he’s been very impressive. He’s in great shape, he plays with a high motor, he’s athletic and he’s strong.”
Those are the building blocks for a potential All-Pro. Although Jordan does not have one overwhelming physical attribute, he is above average in just about every department and enhances those strengths with his work ethic and enthusiasm.
“He has superhuman energy levels,” said offensive tackle Zach Strief, who has gotten a first-hand look at Jordan’s development. “He has a motor, and it’s not just a game-day motor. It’s a practice motor and a camp motor. He’s just a guy that doesn’t seem to tire. He’s a powerful rusher that has good quickness and is strong. Instead of it being a lighter guy that has a motor out of necessity, you take a guy that has a lot of natural ability and, on top of that, he’s not going to stop and he’s going to be there in the fourth quarter. The last pass rush is going to feel like the first rush.”
Jordan said he believes the key was finding the right playing weight. After earning first-team All-Pac-10 honors as a senior at California in 2010, he bulked up to more than 300 pounds before his rookie season because he thought he needed to be bigger to hold up on run defense.
He lost some quickness in the transition and shed the extra pounds in his first offseason. For year No. 3, he is down to a svelte 287 pounds on his 6-foot-4 frame.
“I never want to be back (at my rookie weight) again,” he said. “I was big. I’m back down to where I’m supposed to be. I want to be the high-motor guy for the team, whether it’s every down or two downs or whatever role they want me to fit in.”
Payton sees Jordan as an every-down player, citing his stamina, pass-rushing skills and physicality. That last attribute came through hard work and natural ability. Right after Jordan arrived for his rookie year, Strief noticed something special.
“The first thing I remember about Cam was feeling he’s got power, and power is something that is hard to teach somebody,” he said. “He had that on Day 1. The question then becomes, ‘Can you use that power in a constructive pass rush?’ And he can. Dealing with him from a pass-blocking and run-blocking standpoint, he’s just extremely consistently difficult to block. I think he is 50 percent better this year than he was last year.”
Jordan’s motor extends off the field. He bounded into the locker room three days before the season opener against Atlanta and expounded on a variety of topics.
He started with how the Saints-Falcons rivalry compared to Cal-Stanford (not quite as intense, but “I do have a little hate in my heart when it comes to these guys,” he said); his desire to be the “next Cal great” along the lines of Aaron Rodgers, Marshawn Lynch, DeSean Jackson and Andre Carter; and his appreciation for the humor of Payton’s new “roasted falcon” Visa commercial “before they played it 57 times” at one preseason game.
Teammate Will Smith, who started opposite Jordan at end the past two years before suffering a season-ending knee injury this preseason, labeled him a bubbly guy on and off the field. Jordan can’t argue that, admitting his frenetic energy in games is an extension of his personality.
“I think it’s because my mouth never really stops talking,” he said. “To keep it going, the legs have to start moving. It’s like the circle of life for me.”
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