Alex Okafor, Hau'oli Kikaha will battle to fill Saints' biggest need

METAIRIE, La. -- I used a “Who’s on First” analogy earlier this week to break down the New Orleans Saints' most intriguing depth-chart battle: the crowded linebacker position.

But a reader offered a great response on Twitter to help highlight another big one:

The Saints have identified that weakside edge rusher position on the opposite side from defensive end Cameron Jordan as a “must” in each of the past two offseasons. But they have yet to address it with a big-dollar free agent or high draft pick.

For now, anyway, they’re counting on a breakthrough from newly signed veteran Alex Okafor or third-year pro Hau'oli Kikaha, after both have battled injuries throughout their careers, or an even bigger breakthrough from third-round draft pick Trey Hendrickson or sixth-rounder Al-Quadin Muhammad. The media will get a first look at all of them Thursday, when the Saints hold their third OTA practice of the offseason (and the first one open to the media).

“We’re trying to find somebody that can hold down that other side opposite Cam,” Saints defensive coordinator Dennis Allen said. “We’ve got a lot of good candidates. And we’ll let the competition play out. But I do think there’s more depth at that position at this point in time in the year than maybe what we had last year at this point in time.

“Kikaha is coming back healthy. We signed Alex Okafor. We drafted Hendrickson and Muhammad. Obum [Gwacham] is going to be coming back off of injury. So it’s going to be exciting to see.”

The Saints’ inability to land a proven pass-rusher is easily the biggest disappointment of the offseason. But as I wrote during the draft, I can’t blame them for any of the moves they didn’t make, considering they would have had to overpay for a second- or third-tier DE in free agency or reach in the draft for a player who wasn’t graded highly enough on their board.

I am cautiously optimistic about the 26-year-old Okafor, who has shown some flashes of dynamic ability when healthy after being drafted in the fourth round by the Arizona Cardinals in 2013. He had eight sacks in 2014 before fading to just 5.5 sacks the past two seasons.

Okafor (6-foot-5, 246 pounds) got a meaningful endorsement from one of the Saints’ core defensive players -- and one of his closest friends from their days at Texas: Kenny Vaccaro.

“Obviously, Kenny had a good relationship with him, so that gave us a little bit of insight or information about what type of guy he is,” said Allen, who added that Okafor’s tape made an impact on the Saints. “There were some things that we saw on tape. Although he’s had some injuries, when he’s been healthy, he’s been able to produce as far as being a pass-rusher.”

It will be interesting to see if Okafor or Kikaha is lining up with the first string Thursday, though the two will likely rotate as the offseason progresses. Kikaha, 24, was poised to be the Saints’ starting edge rusher on the weak side last season before he suffered an ACL injury during June minicamp. The 6-foot-3, 246-pounder, who was drafted in the second round in 2015, had four sacks as a part-time starter as a rookie.

Here are three other intriguing depth-chart battles:

Running back: It isn't an either-or situation between Mark Ingram and Adrian Peterson (or third-round draft pick Alvin Kamara) because they can all rotate and play different roles. But it will be fascinating to see how the Saints divide the work between two alpha backs used to being the main man.

Chances are they’ll both embrace the timeshare early, particularly because this is the best time of year for running backs, who always look fantastic in non-padded, non-tackling practice sessions.

Cornerback: Delvin Breaux should be a lock for a starting job after he battled injuries in 2016. But I'm eager to see if the 11th pick in the draft, Marshon Lattimore, can impress enough to earn the other starting job by summer's end. Lattimore is supremely athletic, but he had just one full season of starting experience at Ohio State.

In the meantime, veteran cornerbacks Sterling Moore and P.J. Williams (both coming off injury-plagued seasons) could take turns competing for the role as well.

Offensive line: There likely won’t be any surprises here during OTAs. First-round draft pick Ryan Ramczyk isn’t healthy enough yet (after hip surgery) to push veteran Zach Strief for his starting job, though that could change during training camp after the Saints deemed Ramczyk ahead of schedule in his recovery. On the flip side, starting center Max Unger will definitely be sidelined until at least the preseason because of foot surgery. Veteran backup Senio Kelemete is the natural replacement option, but second-year pro Jack Allen could make a run at the temp job.

The entire offensive line is intriguing. I’ll be anxious to see if stellar left tackle Terron Armstead can shed two years of injury woes; if left guard Andrus Peat can make the same type of leap in Year 3 that he made in Year 2; and if right guard Larry Warford can be a game-changer after the Saints signed him from the Detroit Lions in free agency for $8.5 million per year.