When the New Orleans Saints drafted Clemson middle linebacker Stephone Anthony and University of Washington defensive end / outside linebacker “hybrid” Hau’oli Kikaha with back-to-back picks in the 2015 NFL Draft, the organization’s original plan for both young men was for them to become an integral part of the future for the team’s rebuilding defense.
Now almost exactly just 2 years later, both young men find themselves as “The Forgotten Men” of the defensive unit instead, with both of their futures now being cast in doubt somewhat with the recent free agent additions in recent weeks of veterans middle linebackers A.J. Klein and Manti T’eo, and defensive end / outside linebacker Alex Okafor.
The Saints drafted Anthony with the #31 overall pick in 2015; and although he started all 16 games as a rookie and made 112 tackles after a very promising debut / first season that year, he has had some very notable struggles with adjusting to the mental aspects that go along with playing at the NFL level.
After getting head coach Sean Payton’s blessing, defensive coordinator Dennis Allen moved Anthony to the “Sam” (strongside) linebacker position last summer, although the former 1st-round pick ended up playing just 133 snaps on defense.
Meanwhile, Anthony’s teammate, 2015 2nd Round pick (#44 overall) Hau’oli Kikaha, suffered a torn ACL injury in the final week of Mini-Camp last June, and the Saints placed Kikaha on the physically unable to perform list before training camp, where he remained for the rest of 2016 and missed the entire season.
Torn ACL’s typically require a minimum of nine months to a year for full recovery, and so the “good news” is that Kikaha is reportedly way ahead of schedule in the rehabilitation process.
However, the question remains: just how good can Kikaha be when he returns?
Despite indications that he’s recovering well, nobody should be surprised if he struggles once he returns — given that he will be attempting to overcome tearing the same ACL in the very same knee (he tore the same ACL twice in college) for the third time in his relatively short playing career.
So, in a nutshell: the two young men who just 2 years ago were drafted to be a big part of the team’s future on defense, will both come into 2017 with possibly their professional football careers already “on the line” after only a total of 2 seasons (technically only 1 for Kikaha) each in the NFL.
And now the first thing that Saints fans want to know is: just what are the team’s plans for both players in 2017?
This past Thursday morning at the end of the annual NFL Owners Meetings in Phoenix, Saints head coach Sean Payton offered a throng of gathered reporters a glimpse of his thought process.
First, here’s what he said about Stephone Anthony:
Question: How would you characterize this upcoming season for Anthony after last year?
“This past season wasn’t the type of year that he wanted, (but) we’re anxious to see him perform this upcoming year. He’ll be healthy. He just finished rehabbing. I know he’ll be excited.”
NOLA.com / The Times Picayune columist Larry Holder, who was among the reporters in attendance at Phoenix, noted that Payton stopped short of calling it a crossroads season for Anthony, who’s entering his third year. But Holder also notes: “the writing is on the wall” for Anthony, since his steep dive down the depth chart in Year 2 and his inability to mentally grasp the various responsibilities required to play linebacker within the Saints scheme.
Holder also adds that the Saints were basically forced to play with two linebackers last season because of the lack of quality and available bodies. Payton looked to change that by adding players like A.J. Klein and Manti Te’o.
Both Klein and Te’o will likely compete for starting the “Mike” / middle linebacker spot, which in 2015 was manned by Anthony but last year was manned for a majority of the season by the team’s leading tackler and one of the top Free Agent signings of 2016; in veteran Craig Robertson.
Robertson this year will likely slide over to his more natural position of the “Will” / weakside linebacker spot, where he could see plenty of action given the notable past issues with injuries of starting “Will” LB Dannell Ellerbe.
So where does that leave Stephone Anthony?
Likely still in “limbo” for the time being, and probably as the back-up at strongside / “Sam” linebacker behind Nate Stupar. Which is exactly why Anthony will need to show some extensive and even great improvement in the off-season workouts and the upcoming Mini-Camps and Training Camp, or else his time in New Orleans could come to an early and unexpected end.
One thing to keep in mind: how much influence that brand new linebackers coach Mike Nolan could have on Anthony’s development.
Nolan — the son of former late 1970’s Saints head coach Dick Nolan (1978-1980) — has a noted reputation as a defensive “guru” within the League, and his ability to develop linebackers in particular could be the determining factor in whether or not Anthony remains in New Orleans, or is eventually forced to seek an opportunity to revive his career elsewhere with another team.
After Payton’s comment about Stephone Anthony, here’s what he said about the other 2015 pick Hau’oli Kikaha:
Question: Is (Hau’oli) Kikaha doing well coming off of the ACL injury?
“He’s doing well. We start the offseason program here in a couple weeks. He is ahead of schedule so that is exciting.”
If — and right now that’s still a mighty big “if” — Kikaha can return to his previous form in 2015, it should give the Saints more pass rushing options, but given that they’re signed defensive end Alex Okafor and are also expected to target an edge rusher / defensive end in the draft, this could potentially be the “make or break” season of Kikaha’s career.
Cameron Jordan was the ONLY reliable player off the edge in 2016. Along with the signing of Okafor, the Saints also re-signed long-time veteran back-up Darryl Tapp. But ultimately, this current 2017 off-season will become a “bust” if the Saints don’t find a better starting option to put on the opposite side of the defensive line from Jordan.
That likely will come from the 2017 NFL Draft later this month, possibly even with the Saints’ top pick at #11. Which means that even if Kikaha shows that he can still play, he will be likely be in the “fight of his life” for a spot on the final roster.
Kikaha has already “defied the odds” once before by coming back successfully from those two torn ACL’s to the same knee in college, to lead the NCAA in sacks his senior season at Washington in 2014.
But now having torn that same ACL in the very same knee once again for a THIRD TIME?
That’s a challenge that likely no athlete — no matter how hard that they might try — can overcome. Kikaha is intent on showing and proving to everyone that he can, and we can only wish him the best of luck.
But there are no guarantees in life, and certainly not in the sport of Pro Football.
Now the Saints organization finds itself having to likely replace two starting positions on defense that just 2 short years ago, appeared to be “set” for the next decade or so.
From what was once a state of certainty for the “future”, now to a state of uncertainty going forward.
Can Stephone Anthony and Hau’oli Kikaha both “bounce back” and save their NFL careers in 2017?
Keep watching Saints fans, because we’re about to find out………….
Saints News Network Editor / Featured Columnist and Lead Analyst Barry Hirstius is a 49-year old semi-retired journalist and former New Orleans area sports Editor and Columnist previously with several sites that exclusively cover the New Orleans Saints NFL football team. Additionally, he is a frequent guest on a variety of SportsTalk Radio programs that cover the Saints. Barry is also a New Orleans native that dating all the way back to his childhood in the early 1970's, grew up as a long-time New Orleans Saints fan who followed and now covers the team for a span of over 40 plus years. Most importantly, he is the Grandfather of two beautiful young girls, Jasmine and Serenity.......