Defensive end by committee. Sound confusing? It’s not; it’s basically the concept of running back by committee at defensive end. Saints fans are used to seeing the Saints use multiple running backs in their offense, and they could do that at defensive end this season. Coming into the offseason, it was known that defensive end was a position-of-neeed for the New Orleans Saints. Cameron Jordan had a fantastic season at DE (10 sacks, 45 tackles, 5 passes defensed). Often times, Jordan was the only player putting pressure on opposing quarterbacks. The Saints had abysmal play from their defensive tackles, and the opposite defensive end position was manned by Bobby Richardson after Akiem Hicks had been traded. Many believed the Saints would target Shaq Lawson, a DE from Clemson, with their first pick in the 2016 draft. The Saints passed on him and went with DT Sheldon Rankins. Coach Payton made it clear that Hau’oli Kikaha would move to DE after playing strong-side linebacker last season. It would make sense for the Saints to go defensive end by committee at the spot opposite Cameron Jordan.
The Saints drafted Hau’oli Kikaha with the 44th pick of the 2015 draft. He played DE at Washington where he amassed 18 sacks in his 2014 campaign; the Saints played him at SLB. He started his rookie season off hot by sacking the opposing quarterback 4 times in his first 6 games. An ankle injury and change in role slowed Kikaha down. Regardless, there is no doubt he flashed potential. Hau’oli Kikaha has the natural ability to get after the passer; a non-stop motor matched with good hand technique (developed by his participation in judo) allow him to beat offensive tackles.
Moving Kikaha to DE should prove to be beneficial for both the Saints and Kikaha. The Saints will be utilizing Kikaha’s strengths at DE; keeping him out of coverage is incredibly important. There will be one challenge for Kikaha: his size. Last year, he weighed in at 246 lbs. Cameron Jordan weighs 287 lbs. That’s a pretty big difference. Now, don’t get me wrong, Kikaha doesn’t need to put on 40 lbs. He does, however, need to put on about 15 lbs. I wouldn’t worry about it. He is a professional athlete, and some of the best facilities are at his disposal. He should have no problem putting on the muscle needed to battle in the trenches.
Even if Kikaha does put on 15 lbs, he will be thrown around by offensive tackles at times. Run defense is not a strength of Kikaha’s game.
Kasim Edebali was born in Hamburg, Germany. He played college football at Boston College and went undrafted in 2014. In the 2014 season, he was able to tally 2 sacks, and he upped that total to 5 in 2015. Edebali was largely a situational-pass rusher in 2015. Weighing in at 253 lbs, Edebali is a few pounds heavier than Kikaha. We saw what he could do from defensive end last year on third downs. Quickness is something that comes to mind when I think of Edebali. He has relatively good speed coming off the edge, and for a Saints defense that struggled to get to the QB, that speed would be welcomed with open arms.
Who??? That’s right, don’t forget about Davis Tull. Tull was drafted out of Chattanooga in the 5th round (148) by the Saints in the 2015 draft. He was shut down for the season after dealing with a shoulder injury; he was recovering from labrum surgery. In some ways, Tull is very similar to Hau’oli Kikaha. Both were projected as 3-4 outside linebackers, and they were incredibly productive in college. Most importantly perhaps, is their style of play and body type. At the combine, Tull weighed in at 246 lbs.
He has a relentless motor, just as Kikaha does. Tull is a quick edge rusher who bursts off the snap. I’ll be interested to see how Tull comes into OTAs. Will he come in heavier or will he come in at his weight of about 245? This will be important in determining the plan for him. If he comes in heavier than about 255, I’d expect the Saints to use him at defensive end; if not, he will likely be a situational pass rusher and backup at SLB.
A Quick Trio
Hau’oli Kikaha, Kasim Edebali, and Davis Tull could very realistically share time at defensive end opposite Cameron Jordan. These three players all have one thing in common: the ability to get to the quarterback. For a Saints defense that was horrific last season, it is of great importance to improve the pass rush. The Saints only managed to sack opposing quarterbacks 31 times; that number needs to be increased.
I expect the Saints defensive line to look much better next year. Cameron Jordan will finally get some help. Rookie Sheldon Rankins and free agent acquisition Nick Fairley should create pressure from the inside for the Saints. The possible trio of Kikaha, Edebali, and Tull will bring great quickness off the edge, and Jordan will be the versatile force that he is.
There is one challenge to playing Kikaha, Edebali, or Tull at DE, and that challenge is run defense. They are all lighter players; there is a good chance they’ll be pushed around by offensive linemen on rushing plays. However, adding weight should help them in this department. The Saints should have a plan in place to compensate for this. Improved defensive tackle play along with a healthy linebacker corp should make the run defense more effective.
If the Saints do indeed go with a defensive end by committee, I expect Hau’oli Kikaha to get the bulk of the playing time. Despite the fact that Edebali finished with better statistics last season, Kikaha was more effective in the games where he was healthy. A second round pick was used on Kikaha, and I believe he’ll be given as many opportunities to succeed as the Saints can possibly give him. By percentage of snaps, I could see the Saints going Kikaha 65, Edebali 20, and Tull 15.
OTAs should answer many of our questions in regards to what the Saints will do at DE, but don’t be surprised to see the Saints go with some form of defensive end by committee.