The New Orleans Saints lost the opening game of their 2019 preseason schedule at home last night to the visiting Minnesota Vikings by a score of 34-25; a high scoring contest in which neither one of the Black and Gold’s two biggest star players — Drew Brees and Cam Jordan — played a single snap.
But for those folks who are looking for a silver lining in last night’s loss (such as the notable stand-out performances by veterans Teddy Bridgewater and Latavius Murray, as well as undrafted rookies Deonte Harris and Lil’Jordan Humphrey) it’s also just as likely that they might have come away with one glaring disappointment: the lack of a pass rush by the starting defense, and specifically the play of 2nd year defensive end/edge pass rusher Marcus Davenport.
Hoo boy, not sure how it happened but Marcus Davenport just got knocked on his rear end
— Luke Johnson (@ByLukeJohnson) August 10, 2019
Without Cam Jordan in the lineup during the first half of last night’s game, the Saints’ defensive line appeared to struggle with generating any pressure against Vikings QB Kirk Cousins. It wasn’t until 3rd-year defensive end Trey Hendrickson (who drew the start in place of Jordan at the left defensive end spot) got himself going, that anyone else along the D-Line showed any signs of aggressiveness or even the capability to generate consistent pressure off the edge.
Trey Hendrickson is playing like his hair is on fire. Pressures Vikings QB Sean Mannion but he still manages to complete an 18-yard TD pass to Olabisi Johnson, who made a nice leaping catch in tight coverage vs. Patrick Robinson.
— Jeff Duncan (@JeffDuncan_) August 10, 2019
In fact, it was Hendrickson who just barely missed out on making a sack on backup Vikings QB Sean Mannion, who subsequently was hit hard and driven down to the turf right before he was able to complete an 18-yard touchdown pass to back-up Vikings WR Olabisi Johnson. The Saints need some additional depth at the defensive end/edge rusher position behind Jordan and Davenport, and Hendrickson showed everyone watching last night that he is more than up to the task.
However, we all know and are well-aware of what Jordan has done throughout the past several years and still continues to do.
But where exactly does that leave Davenport at the moment?
Marcus Davenport makes a splash in his debut as a New Orleans Saint, writes @JohnDeShazier
— New Orleans Saints (@Saints) August 26, 2018
Almost a year and a half since the Saints took a gamble and traded away their #1 pick in the 2019 NFL Draft to the Green Bay Packers for the opportunity to move up in last year’s Draft and get Davenport, the team’s loyal fans are still divided over whether the move was a good one.
The Black and Gold moved up to the #14 spot (which was held by Green Bay) to get Davenport by giving the Packers the 27th and 147th overall selections in the Draft last year, along with what eventually became the 30th overall pick in the 2019 Draft.
Some feel they might have made a mistake by taking a talented but raw player with a pattern of nagging injuries early in his career and who, despite his natural God-given ability, is a player that rarely faced big-time competition during his time at the University of Texas-at-San Antonio.
The 2017 C-USA Defensive Player of the Year became the first Roadrunner to be picked in the first round of the NFL Draft.#BirdsUp 🤙
— UTSA Football 🏈 (@UTSAFTBL) April 25, 2019
While the doubters and skeptics feel that the Saints gave up far too much for the talented 23-year old, the Saints organization and particularly head coach Sean Payton remain steadfast in their belief that the young edge pass rusher that some NFL scouts and college draft experts labeled an “athletic freak of nature” was and is worth every bit of draft capital required to land him.
However, last night’s lackluster performance seemed to suggest any lingering doubts more than a few Who Dat fans have about Davenport could be warranted after all.
Fair or not, there are always going to be great expectations placed upon a player that you give up a future #1 Draft Pick to get. That’s just the reality for ANY NFL fanbase, much less fans from the “Who Dat Nation.”
After last night, it’s a fair question to ask: did the Saints “overpay” for Davenport?
— New Orleans Saints (@Saints) September 23, 2018
The last time the Saints traded two first-round picks to move up in the draft for a player was during the 2003 NFL Draft, when they dealt the # 17 and #18 selections overall to Arizona in order to move up to the #6 overall spot to select then University of Georgia defensive tackle Johnathan Sullivan.
We obviously don’t have to remind long-time Saints fans of how that eventually turned out.
The freakish and muscularly-built 6-foot-7, 264-pound Davenport is the ultimate physical specimen and prototype of an edge rusher/defensive end in today’s NFL. He was supposed to give the Saints a complimentary pass rusher opposite of the All-Pro Jordan; something they’ve lacked on the defensive line for the past several years.
From the perspective of most knowledgeable football fans, the thought is probably that Davenport’s potential to be a dominant player at the next level justifies any move that the Saints made. But from the pessimistic point of view, the thought might be that New Orleans paid too much.
As a rookie last season, although Davenport didn’t start any games in his role as the backup at right defensive end, he did play around half of the Saints’ defensive snaps in the 15 games he played, including the playoffs (he was inactive for three games because of a toe injury).
In all, he finished the season with 22 tackles (12 solos), 6 TFLs (tackles for loss), 4.5 sacks, 2 passes defended, 28 quarterback “pressures,” 12 quarterback “hits,” and 1 forced fumble. However, Davenport was coming on very strong before he hurt his toe in the Vikings game at Minneapolis last year, and he had put up a total of four sacks in five weeks.
— New Orleans Saints (@Saints) October 9, 2018
He eventually returned for the final two months of the season, but later admitted he wasn’t completely healed and told reporters the injury was considered “season-ending.”
However, regardless of how last season ultimately ended, the organization remains steadfast in their belief that Davenport is the player they need to not only help the team “win now” while they’re so close to winning a championship, but for the future of the franchise as well.
Davenport’s 22 career sacks and 38 tackles for loss during his time in college were impressive. But many NFL teams had reservations over the level of competition his production came against multi-sack outings vs. the likes of Alabama State, Louisiana Tech, and North Texas, for instance.
Ironically, that was one of the very same observations made by none other than living Saints legend and original member of the famous late 1980’s “Dome Patrol” defense outside linebacker/edge rusher Pat Swilling on the Saints Post Game Show broadcast on local New Orleans television station FOX8 WVUE New Orleans following last night’s loss to Minnesota.
— Richard Bartley Dark (@RBartDark) August 10, 2019
— AllSaintsConsidered.com (@AllSaintsBlog) July 25, 2017
Swilling was even recognized as the 1991 NFL Defensive Player of the Year for New Orleans and is regarded by many long-time followers of the Saints franchise as the team’s greatest pass rusher of all-time.
Nobody knows more about getting pressure and sacking quarterbacks than the Saints Hall of Famer Swilling, who very famously back in his college days at Georgia Tech University as a consensus All-American defensive end, once sacked a quarterback (North Carolina State QB Erik Kramer) an incredible seven — count ’em, seven — times in one game.
On the post-game program hosted by WVUE FOX8 sports anchor Juan Kincaid, Swilling noted that Davenport still has a very long way to go to prove that he belongs in the NFL, and pointed out that two main factors appear to be hindering Davenport’s progress thus far: a lack of hand technique and pass-rushing “moves” that most great pass-rushers in the NFL are able to master, and the “step-up” in competition coming straight from a small school level program into the professional ranks.
In fairness, Swilling did say that this was only a preseason game and not the end of the world for Saints fans, adding that he felt the Saints defensive coaching staff (particularly defensive line coach Ryan Nielsen), have done a great job of teaching Davenport the proverbial “ins and outs” of what it takes to ultimately succeed as a pass-rushing specialist in today’s modern-day NFL in 2019.
But it’s ultimately up to Davenport to make that happen — and last night, he proved that he still has a very long way to go.
Barry Hirstius is a semi-retired journalist, who has worked as a sports editor and columnist. Barry is a New Orleans native who grew up as a fan of the Saints while attending games as a young boy at the old Tulane Stadium. He is the proud Grandfather of two beautiful young girls, Jasmine and Serenity. Follow him on Twitter: @BarryHirstius