The Saints were relying on a leap in production from second-year defensive end, once strong-side linebacker, Hau’oli Kikaha in 2016 to improve their much maligned defensive front. Before they had a chance to see what the former second round pick could do as a starting 4-3 end, those plans where dramatically changed when he tore his ACL for the third time during OTAs.
While Kikaha was no lock for an improved performance, or even a starting spot, this injury leaves the Saints thinner at what was probably their thinnest position, the ‘Jack’ end/linebacker. Let’s take a look at their next options:
‘The dream Kasim’ has always stood out in pass rushing situations as having a very fast first step and initial move. His career so far, undrafted free-agent and situational pass-rusher, has a lot of parallels to 2013 break out player at the same position Junior Galette (except for Edebali not being a train-wreck off the field).
With two and five sacks in the 2014 and 2015 seasons respectively, the Hamburg, Germany native will be in a great position to continue his upward trend in production and solidify a position on the Saints line for the future.
The Saints claimed Gwacham, the converted wide receiver, before the 2015 season started. Seattle, who had taken him in the 6th round of the 2015 draft, cut Gwacham after training camp. He became the second former Oregon State wide receiver on the Saints roster, along with Brandin Cooks.
Gwacham turned up to OTAs this year after adding another 15-20 pounds of weight (now at around 260lbs) to his 6-5 frame, ideal for the transition from 3-4 OLB to 4-3 DE. Gwacham may be the rawest and most athletic of the bunch, but showed in his little time on the field last year that he could produce at this level.
After missing his whole rookie season last year, 2015 fifth rounder Tull has a point to prove. Consecutive labrum injuries leading to surgery and a season on IR has lead to question marks about his durability and a move to a more physically demanding position won’t do anything to help them go away.
The tape from Tull’s college career is still unbelievable, albeit against poor opposition. The three time SoCon DPOY (2012-14) was unrelenting in his time at Tennessee-Chatanooga, wracking up a conference record 37 sacks in his time there.
From all accounts during OTAs Tull is flashing that lightning first step that had tongues wagging at this stage last year. Even as a situational pass-rusher, it will be fun to see what he can produce in the 2016 campaign.
This one is a little left-field, I know, but hear me out. Mickey Loomis said he expected Onyemata to come in and produce in his first year (I was amongst the majority who rolled their eyes when I heard this too) and he may well have to do that. Onyemata isn’t about to stand up at the Jack position and run around tackles, but he is more than capable of standing up as the strong-side (or closed-side) defensive end with Cam Jordan back in the Jack role he played last year.
This lineup may have been reserved for jumbo packages or running downs for this year, but if Bobby Richardson could do it last year, couldn’t Onyemata this year?
There aren’t too many attractive free agent pass rushers available at this stage of the year. With every team having 93 on their roster, that’s no surprise. The Saints may take a look at the ancient, yet somehow still productive, Dwight Freeney, who managed eight sacks and three forced fumbles in only 11 appearances with the Cardinals last year.
I’d like to rule out any fans screaming for Greg Hardy at this point too. New Orleans weren’t having anything to do with Junior Galette, even with all his dead money, after a few misdemeanors and his poisonous attitude. There’s no way they go backwards two steps and bring in a bigger locker-room cancer after the overhaul the defense has gone through. No way.
The Saints will definitely be watching some of the final roster cuts around the league to try and grab some guys that were on the bubble at their respective teams, and that may be the best way for them to get a productive veteran presence at defensive end for 2016. But for now, look at the first three guys above to stamp their names on training camp and become the teams starter.