Saints believe Hau’oli Kikaha, Trey Hendrickson have the talent to step up in place of Alex Okafor
The New Orleans Saints defense has started to come into its own this season, bolstered by the additions of young players added in the past three NFL drafts.
New Orleans needs two more of those players to step up now.
Defensive end Alex Okafor suffered a torn Achilles tendon in the fourth quarter of Sunday’s win over Washington, robbing the Saints of a veteran who had become a key playmaker on defense.
“He’s a great teammate here, a part of our team, and he’ll continue to be a part of the team,” Saints coach Sean Payton said. “You hate to see it.”
Okafor, who signed a one-year, $2 million deal with New Orleans to prove he could produce when given a starter’s snaps, was well on his way to earning the first big deal of his career in the offseason.
He ranked second on the team in tackles (43), sacks (4.5), quarterback hits (9) and tackles for loss (5).
“Talked to him this morning; he rolled through,” defensive end Cameron Jordan said. “You know, he was having such a great season, clearly showing that he can be a part of the elite defensive ends. For him to be taken away with six games left, it doesn’t sit well.”
Third-year edge rusher Hau’oli Kikaha and rookie defensive end Trey Hendrickson will likely bear the weight of trying to replace Okafor.
Kikaha, who battled Okafor for the starting role in training camp, has been a healthy scratch in three games, and the Saints have only given him 92 snaps on defense this season, in part because the New Orleans coaching staff has been reluctant to use him against teams that favor the run.
“A lot of it is based on the type of team where we’re playing with regards to pass, run, were they a heavy 21 team (two running backs, one tight end) or were they more of an 11 team (one running back, one tight end)?” Payton said. “A lot of it’s been game-planned that way.”
But when the 6-foot-2, 260-pound Kikaha has been unleashed as a pass rusher, he’s been highly productive. Kikaha is third on the team with three sacks in those 92 snaps, and he’s also got three quarterback hits.
“Clearly, Kikaha is ready to pass rush at any time,” Jordan said.
Hendrickson, a Florida Atlantic product who checks in at 6-4, 270 pounds, possesses some of the inside-out versatility that made Okafor so valuable to the Saints.
New Orleans has given the rookie 213 snaps, or 33.8 percent of all defensive plays, by rotating him into the lineup at defensive end on rushing downs and as an interior rusher on passing downs.
Hendrickson, who has two sacks and five quarterback hits, has spent the season learning from Jordan and Okafor.
“A lot,” Hendrickson said. “They’re vocal and they like to teach, and that’s something that I wasn’t expecting when I came in here. But they’ve been more than happy to show me how to play in the NFL, because it’s a little bit different than Conference USA.”
Okafor had played 77 percent of defensive snaps this season, teaming with Jordan to give the Saints two dangerous players off the edge.
New Orleans needs Kikaha and Hendrickson to replace that production and give help to Jordan, who is a Pro Bowl candidate with eight sacks, 10 tackles for loss and 15 quarterback hits.
The Saints also have rookie Al-Quadin Muhammad, a sixth-rounder out of Miami who led New Orleans in sacks during the preseason but has only played four defensive snaps all year.
Ten games into the season, there is not much veteran talent left on the street.
But the Saints’ best pass rusher isn’t sure his team needs to find anybody else.
“It’s not like we’re starting from scratch; it’s not like we’re scrambling to find a defensive end,” Jordan said. “We have a young kid, Trey, who shows immense talent. We have Kikaha, who is an immense talent on the edge. ... At the end of the day, we know what we have here. I don’t know if we need to go get anyone else, but that’s not my call.”