METAIRIE, La. – One of Sean Payton’s biggest regrets in his 10 years as the New Orleans Saints’ coach was that he let defensive end/linebacker Rob Ninkovich get out of the building – twice – before Ninkovich ultimately became a standout player for the New England Patriots.
The problem was that the Saints never had a good “vision” for the smaller, “tweener” edge rusher types when they ran a 4-3 defense from 2006-2012. But with defensive coordinator Rob Ryan now running a more versatile, flexible defense with a 3-4 base scheme, the Saints finally saw a fit for Washington outside linebacker Hau'oli Kikaha – my favorite pick of their draft so far.
Payton said the 6-foot-2, 253-pound Kikaha projects as the “Sam” outside linebacker, where he can split time with veteran Parys Haralson, who is primarily a run defender. But Payton said Kikaha could also play the “Jack” outside linebacker, currently manned by pass-rush specialist Junior Galette.
Ironically, NFL.com compared Kikaha to Ninkovich in its pre-draft scouting report.
“To [Ryan’s] credit and his success, there’s a vision, there’s a fit. It makes sense,” Payton said. “The mistakes we made [with Ninkovich], obviously were in a vision. We were in a 4-3 defense and we didn’t do a good job of having a right vision for the player, because certainly he’s an exceptional player. I think that there is a vision, we’re in a defense that’ll play a 9 technique with a Sam linebacker (meaning lining up on the far end of the line of scrimmage). [Kikaha] certainly is an on-the-line-of-scrimmage type of player as opposed to an off-the-ball linebacker that would play in between the ends.
“When you watch the tape, you can kind of see what you’re going to ask him to do, that he’s doing. That makes it certainly clearer in the evaluation.”
Kikaha led the nation with 19 sacks in that role at Washington last year, so the vision is certainly an enticing one. As I wrote Friday, Kikaha’s speed and measurables might have dropped him into Round 2 (he ran the 40-yard dash in 4.9 seconds). But his college production, power and ability to finish made him a favorite of ESPN analyst Todd McShay, among others. And his character is apparently another big plus.
“He has great football DNA. He’s tough. He’s physical. … We feel like he rushes the passer exceptionally well,” Payton said. “Occasionally there are players that you hope you have a chance to coach, this guy would be that player for us going through the process.”
I was one of many people who projected an edge rusher to the Saints in Round 1. Payton said the team looked hard at Florida’s Dante Fowler Jr. and Clemson’s Vic Beasley but didn’t expect either to fall to New Orleans at No. 13. Payton said there weren’t any other edge rushers they graded high enough to be worth the 13th pick.
As for Ninkovich, Payton once again admitted, “My hands are dirty [twice],” since he cut him twice after originally drafting him in 2006. New Saints assistant GM Jeff Ireland also cut Ninkovich once in Miami.
“About everyone in the room passed on him either one time, two times or three times,” Payton said. “He’s a tremendous football player. It’s what keeps you awake at night in training camp when you’re reducing your roster. You hope someday when you’re finished you don’t have a ton of those players haunting you. To Rob’s credit, he’s had a great career.”