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Hau'oli Kikaha's injury stinks for Saints defense trying to get out of rut

METAIRIE, La. -- The news of Hau’oli Kikaha’s knee injury just plain stinks.

It stinks for a promising second-year pro who looked like he might have the opportunity to break out as a pass-rusher this year, thanks to a full-time move to defensive end. It stinks for a player who already had to overcome two torn ACLs in college.

And it stinks for a New Orleans Saints defense that desperately needs more juice from its pass rush.

Even with Kikaha in the fold, I listed a pass-rushing defensive end as the Saints’ biggest need before the start of free agency, before the draft and after the draft.

The Saints have spent this offseason trying to generate some positive momentum on a defense that has been stuck in a debilitating rut the past two years.

This is the exact opposite of positive momentum.

However, if the Saints do wind up losing Kikaha for the season, I will stop short of calling it a “devastating” loss -- because that’s the exact word I used when the Saints lost another promising young pass-rusher, Victor Butler, in the summer of 2013. And I wound up being dead wrong.

Kikaha’s injury reminds me of Butler’s injury in every way.

The Saints' defense also was coming off a historically bad season in 2012. The D had just set the NFL record for most yards allowed in a season, which led to defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo being fired and Rob Ryan being hired.

Butler had come over from the Dallas Cowboys in free agency and appeared poised for a breakout year after being buried on Dallas’ depth chart. And when he suffered a torn ACL that summer, it seemed that the wind was being taken out of the Saints’ sails.

Instead, they shockingly wound up with the NFL’s No. 4 defense that year and finished 11-5.

I’m not about to predict that for the Saints this year, but at least the blueprint exists.

An unlikely defensive revival is still possible if players rally under the direction of new defensive coordinator Dennis Allen and new middle linebacker James Laurinaitis. There is still a good deal of talent on the roster if the D can stay healthy from here on out.

That Jack defensive end position definitely looms large as one of the biggest question marks, though.

Third-year pro Kasim Edebali and second-year pro Obum Gwacham are intriguing young talents, though they’ll need to be a lot more than that if either becomes a full-time starter.

Gwacham, who signed with the Saints after being waived by the Seahawks at the end of the 2015 preseason, has generated some buzz this offseason. He said he gained 15 pounds to go from 243 to 258, which makes him more suited for a 4-3 defensive end role.

“Putting on that weight has definitely helped me,” Gwacham said. “I feel a lot more confident when I’m playing against those guys, I feel like I can hold my ground a lot easier. And I definitely feel a lot more explosive, as well.”

The Saints also could consider a veteran free agent. The pickings are slim this time of year, but there still are some notables available, including Dwight Freeney. And the Saints did add a pair of veterans -- safety Roman Harper and receiver Vincent Brown -- in recent weeks.