New Orleans Saints head coach Sean Payton outlined his team's desire to add an impact player in his defensive front seven shortly after the 2018 offseason began. Mission Accomplished: the Saints pulled off a trade with the Green Bay Packers to move up to the 14th pick of the 1st round of the draft to select edge rusher Marcus Davenport from the University of Texas San Antonio. Davenport, the near consensus second best edge rusher in the draft, joins a Saints defensive end corps that was responsible for 26 of the team's 42 sacks. New Orleans finally did get some consistently effective play from the edge opposite of All-Pro end Cameron Jordan, but injuries took their toll at the position down the stretch of last season.
Key Losses: none
Key Additions: Marcus Davenport (draft, 1st round)
Cam Jordan had the finest season of his almost criminally underrated seven year career. Jordan had career highs in sacks (13), passes deflected (an incredible 11), and solo tackles (48). He also forced two fumbles and scored the game-clinching touchdown on an interception in a week six victory over Detroit. Jordan earned his first All-Pro honors, and was in the running for the league's defensive player of the year. He is the unquestioned leader of a young and improving defense, and is one of the better all-around defenders in the National Football League. He mixes a devastating combination of speed and power to dominate opposing blockers, and has the athleticism to even drop into coverage. Jordan is in the prime of his career, and is one of the league's better defensive edge players.
While Cam has shown the ability to take over a game, the Saints finally got him some help on the other side of the line in 2017. Alex Okafor was signed as a free agent away from Arizona, and was having his best professional season before an Achilles injury ended his year in week eleven. He still finished tied for second on the team with 4.5 sacks, provided consistent pressure on opposing quarterbacks each week, and is one of the team's better run defenders. The 27-yr old Okafor was re-signed to a two year contract extension this offseason , and should be fully recovered by the start of the season. His return to form is important for a New Orleans defense that struggled at times during his absence. The Saints used one of their three 3rd round draft choices in 2017 to nab versatile defensive end Trey Hendrickson from Florida Atlantic. Hendrickson is a tenacious defender, who got off to a slow rookie start due to injury. He contributed 2 sacks, while proving to be a solid run defender and valuable part of the line rotation. Hau'oli Kikaha has never been able to capitalize on his tremendous potential since being selected in the second round of the 2015 draft, mainly due to various injuries. He did sack opposing quarterbacks 4 times in 2017, still showing good speed around the edge, and Kikaha also plays the run well. Coaches intend on giving Kikaha more snaps at linebacker this preseason. The move is presumably intended to allow him to make plays in space, but will likely only be for specialized packages, because he does struggle in pass coverage. When injuries struck Okafor, Hendrickson, and Kikaha late last season, veteran free agent George Johnson stepped in and made some key plays down the stretch of the year. A bit of a journeyman with five different stops in a five year career, the 30-yr old Johnson logged some valuable snaps for a Saints defense thinned out by injury. Alex Jenkins will have another opportunity to grab a roster spot in his second year with the team. Part of the NFL's International Program, if Jenkins does not make the roster, he will be granted as an exemption as an extra member of the practice squad. Second year end Al-Quadin Muhammad led the Saints in sacks last preseason to earn him a spot on the roster, but saw little action during the regular season. A raw project with tremendous power and an explosive burst, Muhammad must be more disciplined against the run and hopefully add some additional pass rush to his repertoire. The 2017 6th round pick from Miami (Fla.) could definitely be a factor for significant snaps in 2018.
All eyes will be on the rookie Davenport, as he looks to justify the 2019 first round draft pick the Saints traded to move and get him. Davenport had onlookers amazed by his blend of athletic ability and strength during the team's minicamp and OTA workouts, but it remains to be seen how that potential will translate to game competition right away. The biggest criticism of Davenport was the fact that he didn't face top caliber competition in college with the Roadrunners, playing in Conference USA, but he did stand out during the collegiate postseason competitions. Davenport has potentially elite athleticism and power that could make him a "special" player, according to many scouts. He was slowed by a thumb injury sustained in offseason workouts, but will be fully recovered by the start of camp practices. With the expected recovery of Okafor, along with depth provided by Hendrickson, Kikaha, Johnson, and perhaps Muhammad, Davenport may not be expected to be a full-time starter immediately. He will certainly be used in passing situations right away, as he hopefully rounds into an every down player. If Davenport can quickly become the pass rushing force that his potential suggests, then a talented and improved New Orleans defense could very well become one of the NFL's elite in 2018.
What is your prediction for Marcus Davenport in 2018?
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DROY, every down player by year's end, 8-10+ sacks
All-Rookie team, pass rush specialist, 5-7 sacks
Raw player who shows flashes, but somewhat inconsistent, 2-4 sacks
Struggles to get on the field but shows potential, not a big factor in 2018, 1-2 sacks
Looks like a complete bust, has fans angry that the Saints gave up a 1st rounder to get him