After Saints defensive end Hau'oli Kikaha tears ACL, here are team's options for replacement _lowres

Advocate staff photo by SCOTT THRELKELD -- Carolina Panthers running back Jonathan Stewart (28) gets away from New Orleans Saints outside linebacker Hau'oli Kikaha (44) during the first quarter Sunday, Dec. 6, 2015, at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome.

Hau’oli Kikaha opened his rookie season on a tear.

Kikaha, a second-round pick from Washington, had 38 tackles, four sacks and three forced fumbles in the season’s first half.

Then Kikaha suffered an ankle injury against the New York Giants, and he has had trouble maintaining that level of production. Forced to miss one game and most of another beause of the injury, Kikaha has posted 12 tackles and no sacks and forced his first fumble of the season’s second half late in the Saints’ 35-27 loss to Detroit on Monday night.

“I think he’s developed,” defensive coordinator Dennis Allen said. “I think, not unlike a lot of rookies, he was playing at a really good level and then he had the injury, and he’s fighting through the injury, as well as fighting through the fact that he is coming to the end of a long 16-game season, which is more football than he’s played in his lifetime. I think he’s had to deal with a little bit of the ebbs and flows of being a rookie.”

Workload has played a key role in Kikaha’s drop in numbers, attributed largely to the injury. During the first eight games — before the injury — Kikaha played 424 snaps (53 per game). In the second half of the season, six games so far, Kikaha has taken 143 snaps — just 23.8 per game.

Kikaha took 10 snaps against Detroit on Monday, giving way in the nickel package to Kasim Edebali, who produced two sacks. Allen said the lack of work for Kikaha was part of the game plan, but he’s still content with the way the Saints’ second-round pass rusher has progressed.

“I am not displeased with where he is,” Allen said. “As a matter of fact, I’m pleased with where he is at. He just has to continue to work to get better on a daily basis. If he does that, I think he’s going to turn into a pretty good football player.”

Declining role

David Hawthorne’s role on the roster has changed considerably this season.

A starter for his first three seasons in New Orleans, Hawthorne has taken snaps on defense in only one of the past eight games, and he has been inactive in three.

Hawthorne, who started three games at weakside linebacker when Dannell Ellerbe was injured at the beginning of the season, has given way to Ellerbe and veteran James Anderson, signed at midseason.

“He came off the injury, and we had a lot of health at the linebacker position by the time he came back … and I think special teams plays a big factor in that,” Allen said. “We’ll see as the last couple weeks play out who is available to us, but he is certainly a guy that I wouldn’t hesitate to put into the game if we were able to get him up on game day.”

Hawthorne played 42 snaps against Tennessee, but a nagging hamstring injury kept him out of three games over two separate stints.

When the Saints have all of their inside linebackers available, Hawthorne is forced to the inactive list because Ramon Humber and Michael Mauti are key members of the special teams units.

Hawthorne, a 30-year-old who has 28 tackles this season, has one year remaining on his contract.

“David Hawthorne’s a guy I have a tremendous amount of respect for,” Allen said. “He’s been a real warrior in this league and for the Saints the last few years.”

Christmas traditions

Even NFL players in the thick of the schedule sometimes get a little reprieve on Christmas.

For the fathers in particular, a slightly later start time for practice can go a long way at home, and coach Sean Payton built a schedule that would allow his players to celebrate the holiday with their families.

“On most teams that I have been on, including this one, you usually come in late on Christmas,” tight end Benjamin Watson said.

“The kids and the family obviously want to get up early in the morning, open presents and do whatever Christmas traditions they have. Pretty much every team that I have been on, we’ve always come in late ... so that you could have that Christmas morning together with your family.”