(AP) Saints training camp opened with uncertainty over who'll help All-Pro defensive end Cameron Jordan bolster the pass rush from the edges.
Alex Okafor, Marcus Davenport and Trey Hendrickson appear to be the top candidates for the other starting end job, but the only one of those players who is a proven commodity is coming back from a significant injury. The other two are inexperienced.
Okafor missed the last five regular season games and playoffs last season with a torn Achilles.
Hendrickson is entering his second season, but played only in a reserve role as a rookie and missed four games with various injuries.
The 6-foot-6, 265-pound Davenport was seen as a gamble - albeit with potentially significant upside - as a first-round pick out of UTSA last spring.
After the first padded practice of camp Saturday, defensive coordinator Dennis Allen offered a cautious evaluation of the progress Davenport has made since his arrival at Saints headquarters nearly three months ago.
''I've seen some improvement out of him. He's still got a long way to go,'' Allen said. ''He needed to get bigger and stronger - and he did that during the offseason program. And now, it's about just continuing to work on his fundamentals, his technique.''
During 11-on-11 drills Saturday, Davenport burst into the backfield for a virtual sack on Drew Brees. Defenders are ordered not to touch quarterbacks during practice, so Davenport pulled up and stood next to Brees, who seemed to instinctively brace himself before trying to salvaging the practice snap with a throw.
Davenport downplayed the isolated success.
''It really doesn't mean nothing. I've got to do it consistently,'' he said, noting that on a subsequent snap, ''I got thrown to the ground. So I still got to work on my hands and leverage.''
Davenport has been lining up often against starting left tackle Terron Armstead, the Saints' second-highest-paid offensive player. The easygoing rookie appears to have embraced the challenge and laughs off moments in which Armsted has put him on the turf.
''I like going against Terron, even though I lose,'' Davenport said. ''I get thrown around. But hey, I'm working. I think that's something that's actually worth it to me. I know when I can beat him consistently, I'm going to be ready.''
Davenport also has sought to focus on immediate, incremental goals, but acknowledged that it's hard to ignore the big picture of why New Orleans, a playoff team last season, traded up from its 27th pick to draft him 14th overall.
''Obviously, I've felt the pressure and obviously, it's in the air. But luckily with my coaches and my teammates, they've helped me to not even think about it,'' he said. ''It's more about improving on a daily basis - every day getting better - because we've got big goals and I want to be able to contribute.''
For now, the 6-4, 261-pound Okafor, who had 4 1/2 sacks in 11 games last season, is lining up as a first-team end on far side from Jordan - a sign of how encouraged the Saints have been by his recovery.
''Alex has done a good job rehabbing from that injury and he was having a really good season for us a year ago,'' general manager Mickey Loomis said. ''I am anxious to see if he can get back to that. I think he will. I feel pretty good about that.''
The Saints moved decisively to ink Okafor to a two-year extension while he was still rehabilitating, and Okafor said he was eager to remain in New Orleans.
''I knew coming into the offseason, whether I was healthy or not, I wanted to stay,'' said Okafor, explaining that he benefited from being a more traditional end in a four-lineman scheme in New Orleans, as opposed to more of an outside linebacker role earlier in his career with Arizona. ''It was just a good fit.''
Loomis also mentioned Hendrickson when speaking this week about players who might help apply pressure from the edges.
Hendrickson, who had two sacks and a forced fumble last season, ''has done a good job,'' Loomis said. ''So I think we've got candidates there.''
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