New Orleans Saints: Could Hau’oli Kikaha be Top Rookie LB?


When the 2015 NFL Draft was said and done, it was apparent the New Orleans Saints wanted to add youth to their linebacker corps. The Saints utilized two of their first three picks on linebackers, and ended up with three total at the conclusion of the draft—though they moved one of those players to defensive end.

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The two key additions from the class, Stephone Anthony from Clemson and Hau’oli Kikaha from Washington, came with big expectations from both the fans and the coaching staff, especially considering how poor the Saints defense was in 2014. The unit ranked No. 31 in total yards given up (384 yards per game), No. 25 against the pass (251.2 yards per game) and No. 29 against the run (132.8 per game), according to ESPN.

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To make matters worse, the Saints finished No. 28 in points given up (26.5 per game) and displayed an inability to get to the quarterback, finishing in a four-way tie for No. 21 in the league with 30 sacks. Put simply, the weight of the world was about to be put on two youngsters to not only become the face of a defense, but also become big-time playmakers early in their careers.

With Anthony being taken in the first round of the draft, it was expected by many—including the national media—that he would emerge as the “toast” of the class of linebackers. However, through two games that player has been Kikaha for the Saints, who has made his presence felt in a big way.

Standing 6’2” and 253 pounds out of the University of Washington, Kikaha was instantly tabbed to be the Saints strongside linebacker in the 4-3 defense. Though he received first-round projections from many draft analysts, the NCAA’s leading sack man in 2015 fell to No. 44 of the second round, presumably because of his 4.93 40-yard dash during workouts.

One draft analyst, Dane Brugler from CBS Sports, specifically noted, “Solid build and muscle tone, but lacks ideal body strength and can be pushed off his path at times by blockers. Too easily slowed and needs space to be effective, lacking the length to live in a phone booth. Doesn’t have the power to consistently shed once engaged and won’t overwhelm with his upper body strength.” At the end of his notes on Kikaha, Brugler compared him to Rob Ninkovich of the New England Patriots.

Despite these negatives, Kikaha was renowned as one of the most disruptive defensive players in the 2015 NFL Draft class. As you can see in the table below from Sports Reference, he racked up 35.5 sacks during his career, with 31.5 of those coming in his final two seasons. He also finished with 51 tackles for a loss in that career (40 in his final two years), showing a nose for not only the quarterback, but also for stopping running backs dead in their tracks in the backfield. Add in the six fumbles he forced, and it was easy to see that even with limitations, Kikaha would make many teams regret passing on him in the 2015 NFL Draft.

TacklesDef IntFumbles

Provided by View Original Table
Generated 9/25/2015.

When you look at the early returns of the 2015 NFL season, Kikaha is not only proving the detractors wrong—he is making a case for being the best linebacker in the 2015 NFL Draft class.

In the Saints opener against the Arizona Cardinals, Kikaha burst on the scene with five total tackles and one forced fumble which was recovered by the Saints defense. He followed that performance with an even better one against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, recording seven total tackles, notching his first sack in the NFL and forcing yet another fumble which was recovered by the defense.

Through his first two NFL games, Kikaha has 12 total tackles, two forced fumbles and one sack. All of those numbers are not only better than his running mate, Anthony, but they are better than a lot of the more highly rated linebackers/pass rushers taken ahead of him in the 2015 NFL Draft. In fact, in an article on Pro Football Focus Kikaha was recently ranked as the No. 5 overall rookie so far with a +2.1 rating. He trailed only Vic Beasley of the Atlanta Falcons (a hybrid DE/OLB) for the best performing linebacker thus far in the 2015 draft class.

The performance has not gone unnoticed by his head coach Sean Payton either. In a recent article posted on the New Orleans Saints team website by John DeShazier, Payton was quoted saying, “There’s some snaps that you saw on his college film, but it’s been great for him to demonstrate it as this level. And I think it’s good for our players to see.”

As the New Orleans Saints move forward at 0-2 with quarterback Drew Brees’ status up in the air with a shoulder injury, the team will need even more out of their defense if they hope to compete in the NFC South this season. With upcoming games against the Carolina Panthers and Dallas Cowboys—two teams experiencing injuries to major players already—the opportunity will be there for Kikaha to make his presence known in those games.

If Kikaha keeps going at his current pace, the 44th pick in the 2015 NFL Draft could not only emerge as one of the best players on the Saints defense, he just might be known as the best defensive rookie in the entire NFL.

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