New Orleans Saints 2015 Year in Review: Hau’oli Kikaha

Nov 1, 2015; New Orleans, LA, USA; New Orleans Saints outside linebacker Hau
Nov 1, 2015; New Orleans, LA, USA; New Orleans Saints outside linebacker Hau /

The New Orleans Saints made Hau’oli Kikaha their third choice in the 2015 NFL Draft, and for the first half of the season he looked like the most underrated draft pick in the NFL.

After the Week Four overtime win against the Dallas Cowboys, Kikaha was on pace for 100-plus total tackles (80-plus solo), twelve sacks, and eight forced fumbles.  Kikaha was a dark horse Defensive Rookie of the Year candidate.

Kikaha didn’t reach those numbers after suffering a season-crippling ankle injury early against the New York Giants in Week Eight.  The lingering effects of the injury took away his vital ankle flexibility, which meant he could not drive upfield or bend around the corner to rush quarterbacks as well as he had been.

This play demonstrates how import ankle flexibility, hand usage, and burst are to bagging sacks:

Kikaha sack Cowboys block example 002
Kikaha sack Cowboys block example 002 /

Kikaha had those traits prior to his injury and used them all to pick up a red zone sack on third-down against the Dallas Cowboys.  Thanks to his background as a judo champion, Kikaha possesses great body control and knows how to use his hands when rushing the passer; he was the most-accomplished technician in last year’s draft.

Hau’oli Kikaha used his hands well to disengage the initial block by All-Pro offensive tackle Tyron Smith.  He bent around the edge without losing momentum and threw off a chip-block from the running-back.  Smith recovered from the first counter and tried to drive Kikaha off of his path, but Kikaha was prescient enough to swat away Smith’s hands and chase down the quarterback.  This wouldn’t have been possible without tight coverage downfield and Cameron Jordan standing up his blocker to play contain, keeping the quarterback in the pocket long enough for Kikaha to run him down.

It also hurt his snap count:  Kikaha started seven games at strong side linebacker, playing an average of 56 snaps per game before the ankle injury.  He also got in on special teams a handful of times in several games.  After getting his ankle stepped on, Kikaha saw only 28 plays per game in a reserve role.

The opportunities for Kikaha to make plays rushing the passer also evaporated once Rob Ryan was fired.  With Ryan calling the defense, Kikaha was dropping into coverage on about 30-percent of his passing-down snaps.  That was far too high a percentage for a player who cut his teeth in college picking up sacks and had produced well before getting hurt, but the ratio flipped under Dennis Allen’s leadership; near the end of the season, Kikaha was seeing as much as 70-percent of his plays against the pass in coverage.

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Why did Allen do that?  Was he accounting for Kikaha’s injury and just trying to get the young playmaker on the field however he could?  Did he fail to see where Kikaha’s strengths were, and was shoehorning him into a role that he didn’t fit?  We can’t say, but it’s easy to see that playing Kikaha in coverage (healthy or not) is a waste of his talents.  Hopefully he can come back strong in his sophomore campaign.

Hau’oli Kikaha finished the year short of expectations due to that injury and questionable assignments, but he still had a noteworthy rookie campaign.  He was credited with 52 combined tackles (33 solo), four sacks and four forced fumbles, as well as two passes batted down at the line of scrimmage and two tackles for loss of yardage.  That’s a great foundation to build on moving forward, especially if Kikaha can return to full health.

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