In 2014, the Saints experienced a serious drop off in the pressure that their base pass rush generated from the year prior. The Saints rarely had to blitz two years ago, because players like Cameron Jordan and Junior Galette were consistently complementing each other and getting to the quarterback. They were in the bottom half of the league in blitz percentage, and it allowed their secondary to stay on their haunches and make plays. While Galette still played fairly well in 2014, albeit not to his level the previous year, Jordan experienced a fairly down year, particularly by his standards. Quarterbacks had a lot of time to sit back in the pocket and make plays, and it showed in the final results on the field, as the New Orleans' defense went from fourth in the league in yardage to 31st, a staggering dropoff.
It was widely accepted headed into the 2015 draft that the Saints would take a pass rusher at some point. Many (including myself) thought that it would be in the first round, whether it was Randy Gregory or Vic Beasley in the miracle that he fell down to 13 (he obviously didn't). However, the Saints spent their first round picks on Andrus Peat and Stephone Anthony, an offensive tackle and an inside linebacker, respectively, and left pass rusher to their 44th overall pick. Ultimately, they spent it on Hau'oli Kikaha, who tied for the nation lead in sacks last season at 19. Kikaha didn't get the hype that players such as Dante Fowler Jr. or Randy Gregory got because he doesn't have the ridiculous raw talent that results in tremendous upside that they have. Kikaha utilizes technique to get to the quarterback, rather than a fast first step.
Kikaha was drafted as a specialist, and that's what he'll need to be in New Orleans. He does struggle in the running game and oftentimes fails to seal the edge, especially when he finds himself on the weakside flow of a play, but he's a player that can work out of a 3 or 2 point stance, which coordinators like Rob Ryan can utilize to their advantage. He can work as a 7 or a 9 tech, depending on what the offense is doing, and he has a relentless motor for the quarterback. Going back to the aforementioned issue, however, his motor seems to be pointed at the quarterback at all times. If he's going to be anything more than a pass rusher, it will need to be coached into him.
Alas, in the Pac-12, raw numbers don't necessarily tell the story. It's a fairly top heavy conference, and while 19 sacks is an impressive number no matter how it's cut up, it suffers from the same issue that most college statistics do. Sometimes the competition simply wasn't there. For this reason, the games that mattered most (to me) in terms of showing Kikaha's progression came in 2013 vs. 2014 Stanford, in which Kikaha spent much of the game matched up on Saints' first round pick Andrus Peat. Peat is a known factor, as he is an NFL talent, and how Kikaha played against him is arguably the best indicator of how he'll play at the next level (albeit not an end all be all as Peat is an unknown quantity as of now as well).
The first things that should be pointed out for a player is how they perform outside of their comfort zone. Kikaha's zone, obviously, is rushing the quarterback. When teams forced him to think about whether or not that was the right move, he tended to struggle.
Kikaha is the edge setter against Standford's read option. Of course, it's the quarterback's job to read the outside rusher and adjust the play to what the edge player is doing, but there's rarely a reason for the edge rusher to pursue the halfback, as he will invariably be on the weakside flow of the play. Instinctively, edge rushers must know to trust their interior players, and stay home so as to avoid the big play.
This play isn't entirely on Kikaha, as Washington didn't have anyone to contain the outside, however, he completely squares himself up to the halfback. In doing so, he leaves his C gap completely open, thus making the quarterback's decision to keep the ball simple. Washington has a linebacker coming towards the play, but he's already behind in terms of pursuit.
His point of pursuit compromised, Kikaha is now completely taken out of the play. His only option to make any difference in the play is to drop step and try to catch up on the backside of the play if need be. The quarterback now has a gap to hit, and Kikaha is a nonfactor on the play. This play also comes down to a scheming factor, as Washington should have had someone outside of Kikaha lined up to set the edge (i.e. a safety or a CB), but Kikaha needs to be more patient trying to read the play. It takes a moment of hesitation, and Stanford finds themselves with an easy 8 yard gain.
Peat neutralized Kikaha nearly every time that he was lined up against him, despite Kikaha's best efforts. Whether this is a testament to the Saints' first round pick or a rather a knock against their second obviously remains to be seen, however, Kikaha seemed to stagnate against Peat all game long.
On the other side of the formation, Kikaha did find some modicum of success. He utilized his first step well and was able to get pressure, finally getting a sack in the third quarter. Kikaha had sacks in 13 of 14 games last season.
Despite struggling against the elite, they're called the elite for a reason. Kikaha played well in 2014, albeit perhaps not as well as his numbers initially suggested. He's quick, he's good with his hands, and his gears are always turning. His biggest flaw appears to be a one track mind, something that, rest assured, the Saints will look to remedy as they try to mold him into a Sam 3-4 linebacker (Galette will presumably retain the Will position). Despite struggling in the running game and a bit more in pass coverage, Kikaha should prove to be a valuable addition to the Saints' linebacking corps in the near future.