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Can Wildly Productive UW OLB Hau'oli Kikaha Find NFL Success as a 'Tweener'?

Gary Davenport@@IDPSharksNFL AnalystApril 6, 2015

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Over the past two seasons, there wasn't a better player in college football at making quarterbacks miserable than Washington defensive end Hau'oli Kikaha. The 6'2", 253-pounder led all FBS players with 19 sacks in 2014, and Kikaha racked up an eye-popping 32 sacks over the past two seasons.

Given that level of production, one might think that Kikaha would have no shortage of NFL suitors. However, Rob Rang of CBS Sports lists him fifth among outside linebackers in this year's class—a middling Day 2 pick.

2015 NFL Draft OLB Rankings
RankPlayerSchoolHt.Wt.Proj. Round
1.Dante FowlerFlorida6'3"2611
2.Vic BeasleyClemson6'3"2461
3.Shaq ThompsonWashington6'0"2281-2
4.Eli HaroldVirginia6'3"2471-2
5.Hau'oli KikahaWashington6'2"2532-3
Per CBS Sports

The reason why has a lot to do with where Rang has Kikaha slotted. You see, Kikaha finds himself in a dangerous place as the 2015 NFL draft nears...

The land of the "tweeners."

Kikaha is too small to play defensive end for the vast majority of NFL teams, but there are serious concerns about his ability to play in space as an outside linebacker at the professional level. Those fears weren't alleviated even a little by Kikaha's showing at January's Senior Bowl or the fact that he didn't work out at February's combine due to an illness.

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Kikaha did work out at Washington's pro day last week, and Rang wrote that the youngster helped his cause, "showing much greater comfort dropping as a linebacker than he did during drills at the Senior Bowl." That's significant, Rang said, because Kikaha "may lack the size necessary to remain at defensive end in the NFL."

Still, Rang also allowed in a separate piece that Kikaha's pro day was more a well-hit single than a home run (hey, it's Opening Day—gotta throw at least one baseball metaphor in there):

Kikaha's day didn't start off impressively as he was clocked in the high 4.8s to mid 4.9s after measuring in at 6-2 (1/2) and 248 pounds. He was also clocked at 4.40 in the short shuttle, 12.44 in the long shuttle and 7.16 in the 3 cone drill. That said, he improved as the day went on, looking very good in defensive line drills conducted by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers [and] much more comfortable in linebacker drills Thursday than he did a couple of months ago at the Senior Bowl.

While Kikaha's production is off the charts, he isn't viewed as a first round talent due in part to questions about his fit at the next level and the fact that he's twice torn the ACL in his left knee.

As Rang said, there's another big red flag with Kikaha besides his limited athleticism. Twice he's torn his ACL.

Back in February, Kikaha told Bleacher Report NFL draft analyst Brent Sobleski that he was looking forward to dispelling doubts about both his durability and his quickness.

"There are concerns about these things, whereas I'm concerned about X's and O's and my performance," Kikaha said. "I can't wait for the day when people put on the film and say, 'Wow. This guy is doing his thing,' and they don't even mention the injury."

Unfortunately, he didn't do a lot to dissuade those doubts over the past couple of months.

Mind you, there's plenty to like about Kikaha. He's shown aptitude at rushing the passer from both two- and three-point stances. As he told Sobleski, "I'm rushing the quarterback wherever you put me. I know that. I'm getting after him, and I can't wait." His background with martial arts has greatly aided Kikaha with hand fighting and leverage, as judo is all about leverage.

Although I'm pretty sure you can't do this to an offensive lineman:

It would be fun to watch but a flag nonetheless.

Both CBS Sports' Dane Brugler and NFL.com's Lance Zierlein compared Kikaha to Rob Ninkovich of the New England Patriots, with Zierlein calling Kikaha "the most accomplished pure pass-rusher in this draft class":

Relies on a relentless motor off the edge more than athleticism. He has an elite determination to get to the quarterback. While he seems to specialize in just rushing the passer, Kikaha has the power, hands and frame to improve against the run. It might take some work to get fully comfortable as a stand-up 3-4 OLB, but Kikaha is a very safe draft prospect as long as his medicals check out.

Sure enough, a quick perusal of Ninkovich's draft profile from back in 2006 at CBS Sports shows analysis that may as well have been written about Kikaha: "If he can learn blocking schemes and diagnose play-action better, he could be a capable strongside linebacker in a 3-4 alignment. Right now, he will be capable of stepping into a situational pass rushing situation and produce at the next level."

Granted, there are differences (Ninkovich was about a dozen pounds heavier coming out of school), but Ninkovich also never posted the sort of sack numbers in college Kikaha has. At any rate, things have certainly gone just fine for the nine-year pro as a "hybrid" type on the strong side of Bill Belichick's constantly changing defense in New England.

That may well be the biggest factor in determining whether Kikaha is a success early in his NFL career. If he can land with a team whose staff can accentuate his strengths while coaching up his weaknesses, and if he can stay healthy, the talent's there.

Adding 10 to 15 pounds without losing speed wouldn't hurt either.

That nonstop motor and Kikaha's martial arts background would appear to show a young man more than willing to learn the ropes as well. Simply put, you don't get even a little bit good at that sort of thing without a lot of hard work. That hard work requires discipline.

Still, there are a lot of "ifs" with Kikaha. Size. Role. Durability.

Hau'oli Kikaha is far from a sure thing in the NFL, but not many players are, and the further he falls on Day 2 of the 2015 NFL draft, the easier it's going to be for a team to convince itself the potential reward is worth the risk.

And that's what the NFL draft is all about.

Gary Davenport is an NFL Analyst at Bleacher Report and a member of the Fantasy Sports Writers Association and the Pro Football Writers of America. You can follow Gary on Twitter at @IDPManor.

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