METAIRIE, La. -- Second-year defensive end Hau'oli Kikaha suffered a significant knee injury this week, according to league sources, which means the New Orleans Saints will likely have to rebuild their struggling defense without one of their most promising young players.
One source said the injury was to Kikaha's ACL, and another said the final diagnosis had not yet been reached. Both sources said further evaluation and a treatment plan would be determined in the coming days.
The news of Kikaha's injury was first reported by the New Orleans Advocate and Fox Sports.
Kikaha, 23, tore his left ACL twice in college, but it's unclear whether he injured the same knee this week.
A 6-foot-3, 246-pounder, Kikaha was expected to be the Saints' starting "Jack" defensive end this year after he played outside linebacker as a rookie. Kikaha had four sacks and four forced fumbles last year after the Saints drafted him in the second round out of the University of Washington.
He faded a bit down the stretch last year while dealing with a nagging ankle injury. But the move to end was designed to take better advantage of his skills as a pass-rusher. He had 19 sacks as a senior at Washington.
Kikaha's injury is another blow to a New Orleans defense that has struggled mightily the past two years. Last year, the Saints ranked 32nd in the NFL in points allowed, yards allowed per rush and yards allowed per pass play.
And now they are even thinner at the pass-rushing end spot -- which they didn't really address in free agency or the draft, even though it was among their most glaring needs heading into this offseason.
Two-time Pro Bowler Cameron Jordan has the other defensive end spot locked down, but the Saints are short on experience behind him.
The reports of Kikaha's injury came out after coach Sean Payton finished speaking Thursday. But players such as Jordan were asked about the potential need to replace Kikaha later in the afternoon.
"Until we get the full disclosure, I can't disclose much of anything," said Jordan, who spoke highly of potential young replacements such as Obum Gwacham and Kasim Edebali. "I do know, however, that he was headed in the right direction, and we hope to be closer as a defensive unit this year. I think that's key."
Gwacham, a second-year pro, lined up with the first string Thursday during organized team activities. Edebali, an undrafted third-year pro, could challenge for that job, too, when he returns from his own unspecified injury. Edebali has been working off to the side with trainers during OTAs.
Gwacham said it is "unfortunate" that Kikaha is out right now.
"Obviously I'm very eager," he said, adding that "nothing has really changed as far as the way that we've been practicing" because he was rotating in with Kikaha and seeing plenty of reps against the first-string offense already.
Second-year pro Davis Tull could also work his way into the rotation at Jack, though the Saints might also consider looking for veteran help in free agency.