Michael C. Hebert/ASC Illustrations
A new year and a new class of Saints incoming draft picks. That means I get to do my favorite series all over again. Back at the top of the 2017 season I started this series in which I highlight each of the Saints incoming draft selections, discuss some pro comparisons and give a best-case scenario, worst-case scenario, and my expected stat lines for their first years. Just like last year, I’ll rule out the injury bug and give each prediction as if they were healthy from game 1 to game 16. I will, however, use the practice squad or possible preseason cut as options.
Starting today with UTSA DE Marcus Davenport, I’ll publish write-ups on each selection leading up to the season. As a refresher, here are the selections and their draft positions:
Round 1 Pick 14: UTSA EDGE Marcus Davenport
Round 5 Pick 27 (164): Wisconsin S Natrell Jamerson
Round 6 Pick 15 (189): Boston College CB Kamrin Moore
Round 6 Pick 27 (201): Louisiana Tech RB Boston Scott
Round 7 Pick 27 (245): LSU OG/C Will Clapp
Let’s get it.
The Saints came into the 2018 NFL draft with EDGE on the mind. There were a couple of names floating around as possibilities in the late first through third rounds. The most popular come draft day was Boston College EDGE Harold Landry. However, in the middle of the first round the Saints defied expectations and did what they felt they had to do to get “their guy.” Let me be careful about how I phrase this as to not break Saints Twitter. The Saints sent their 2019 first-round pick and a 2018 fifth-rounder in order to exchange first-round picks with the Packers. Effectively swapping their 27th overall for Green Bay’s 14th overall at the expense of a 2019 first and 2018 fifth. With their shiny new 14th overall pick, the Saints wasted no time in selection University of Texas, San Antonio Defensive End Marcus Davenport. Davenport was often mocked around that mid-first area but was consistently noted as a raw and developmental project.
One thing’s for sure though, his measureables were off the chart and if he could develop the necessary skills quickly, he’d be a complete wrecking ball opposite Pro Bowl Defensive End Cam Jordan. Davenport stands at 6’6” 264 pounds. His combine, at that height and weight were eye-popping.
That put Davenport at the top of his position group (DL via NFL.com) in 40-yard dash, sixth in vertical jump, and second in broad jump. For his size, those are great numbers. Davenport became the fastest defensive end 6’5” of taller in the 40 since LSU’s Danielle Hunter in 2015. The other two 6’5” or taller defensive ends were BYU’s Ziggy Ansah and South Carolina’s Jadeveon Clowney. All of those players are often the subject of Davenport’s pro comps around the draft. I’ve got some that are a little different to take a look at, however.
I’m gonna change up the order a bit this year and start with worst-case scenario. The thing about the Davenport pick is that it has the potential to be a boom or bust. Boom would be nice, but there’s a lingering concern that it might end up being a bust. Now, I’m choosing my verbiage carefully here because I don’t believe that Davenport himself will be a bust but because of his draft position, and the cost to draft him, the expectations are higher. Particularly with him being a “small school prospect”, the commentary on rawness and developmental need are magnified. However, Davenport does a lot of things well. He’s great at converting speed to power, is obviously quick, and uses his length well with the room to get even better. His criticisms come from his tightness, high pad level, and delayed ability to get to top speed. All of which are workable and progress has already been seen throughout training camp.
Back in 2002, Bryan Thomas, a young pass rusher out of the University of Alabama-Birmingham was drafted in the first round by the New York Jets. They didn’t trade for him, but Thomas’s stock rose greatly after a fantastic combine performance. At 6’4” 266, Thomas ran an incredible 4.47 40 and added 33 bench press reps with a 35” vertical leap. However, Thomas is often noted as the Jets unfortunate pick that was taken two selections ahead of nine-time Pro Bowl Safety Ed Reed.
Thomas had plenty of legal issues throughout his career that draw no parallel to the mild-mannered and constructive Marcus Davenport. Thomas was however, like Davenport in that he was a small school selection out of the Conference USA. He managed 36 sacks and 56 tackles for a loss in his time at UAB but didn’t pan out so well on the defensive line at the NFL level. Thomas did spend 11 years as a Jet but only five of which were spent at defensive end before he was moved to linebacker where he finished his career after a surprise cut in 2012. The transition from the college game to the NFL can be stifling. Thomas ended his first year with 5 tackles (1 solo), a half sack, and no fumbles forced while playing as a reserve in 15 games. Granted, he didn’t get a ton of snaps, but that’s certainly a possibility with New Orleans and Davenport if he doesn’t catch on for any reason. Even though we presently have no reason to believe he won’t, the depth on the defensive line including Alex Okafor, Trey Hendrickson, and the seemingly developing Alex Jenkins and Woodrow Hamilton IV, there is room to keep Davenport back and keep him learning. That’s just not what you hope to do with a first-round pick you paid a pretty penny for…
Stat Line: 15 Games, 0 Starts, 10 Tackles, 1 sack, 0 FF, 0 PD
Now, I’ll be the first say that I actually like what we did to grab Davenport at #14. I have no doubts that he would have been gone by 27 and Payton/Loomis/Ireland has already acknowledged that he was the guy and has always been the guy they wanted. With that knowledge and the success of recent classes, I’ve no reason to argue. Though I just highlighted the potential downfall of Davenport, there’s little reason to believe any of that will be the case. Hell, he was attached to teams like the Packers, 49ers, Bucs, and even the Colts who all need a ton of help along the defensive line or also need a second option like the Saints did. In many blogs and articles regarding those other times, Marcus Davenport is often reffered to as a “freak”. Which is what bring me to a similar pro comparison that would surely inspire criticism for many experts, but since we’re talking best-case scenario here. Let’s look at Jevon “The Freak” Kearse’s rookie combine.
Jevon Kearse measured in at barely below 6’5” 265 pounds and put together a combine almost identical to Davenport’s outside of the vert. It’s worth noting that Kearse also managed a 4.43 40 time at Florida’s Pro Day, but “only” a 4.58 at the NFL Combine. On the other hand, Davenport also reportedly ran a low of 4.50 at another time as well. So both are freakish in their speed and are built with impressive stature. Kearse came into the league as a tweener playing linebacker in college at Florida but having ability to play as a 4-3 defensive end. Meaning he had to make a different type of adjustment into the NFL. The Freak finished at Florida with 145 tackles (34.5 for a loss), 16.5 sacks, 6 forced fumbles and 19 passes defensed in three years. Marcus Davenport finished his four-year college career in similar fashion with 185 tackles (37.5 for a loss), 21.5 sacks, 6 fumbles forced, and 18 passes defensed- an emphasis on the Saints defensive line.
Davenport played his best ball at UTSA and matched Jevon Kearse who played with tougher competition in the SEC. The trick here is that Davenport played with his raw play style. With defensive line coach and guru Ryan Nielsen and vets like Cameron Jordan and Alex Okafor to learn from, he has the ability to improve rapidly and it looks like he’s throwing himself into the thick of things to make sure that happens.
Stat Line: 16 games, 16 starts, 40 tackles (8 for a loss), 12 sacks, 3 FF, 7 PD
As for my expectations, for all the reasons above, I expect Davenport to fall somewhere in a happy medium with the worst and best cases I’ve posed. I don’t think he’s going to fail, in fact I think he’s going to be a hell of a success. But will he match Jevon Kearse as the NFL Rookie of the Year, Pro Bowler, and First-Team All-Pro? Probably not, though I wouldn’t count him out of the Defensive Rookie of the Year run just yet. I’m looking toward another legend that got off to a respectable start his rookie year after coming into the NFL from a smaller college.
Hailing from the University of Akron and the NCAA MAC Conference, Defensive End Jason Taylor was selected by the Miami Dolphins in the third round of the 1997 NFL Draft. I know, he wasn’t a first-rounder, but if you look back at his career now, you can make the case that he should have been. Davenport and Taylor have comparable size as Taylor was 6’6” coming into the league, but weighed less at 243 pounds. Despite his lighter size, his 40 time was slower but his combine numbers, where they matter, are fairly close to what Davenport produced.
Now, Taylor went on to become a Pro Bowler and First-Team All-Pro on multiple occasions and even lead the league in 2002 with 18.5 sacks in his sixth year. But before all of that, he had to adjust to the speed of a new league and learn a pro system. He served a more rotational role before cracking the starting lineup partway through his rookie season, a narrative I’m prepared to expect of Davenport as well. Taylor collected 30 tackles (3 for a loss), 5 sacks, and 2 forced fumbles his rookie season. Taylor also went on to be 7th on the all-time sack list. So it goes to show that you can come from a small school, begin humbly in the NFL, and still find the path to solidify yourself among the most successful players in the league. Whether Davenport will be able to follow that path remains to be seen, but he’s got the foundation to build upon to become a great player and we’re lucky to be a part of his journey.
Look for Davenport to begin in rotation with Okafor and Hendrickson before finding his was into the starting lineup for the rest of the season once he settles in. He did, however, have thumb surgery before training camp and left the Saints 5th live practice with an undisclosed issue. Could have just been dehydration or equipment issues after the rain started to come down, but if he’s having trouble with that thumb or something else has gone awry, it could keep him from getting in the mix too early this season.
Stat Line: 16 games, 8 starts, 30 tackles (5 for a loss), 6 sacks, 1 FF, 4 PD