Following Monday afternoon’s free-agent signing of TE2 Josh Oliver, Kwesi Adofo-Mensah and the Minnesota Vikings surprised the football world by signing former New Orleans Saints edge rusher Marcus Davenport to a one-year, $13 million deal. General manager Mickey Loomis and the Saints moved up 13 spots in the first round of the 2018 NFL Draft to select Davenport at No. 14 overall. Considering the compensation that the Saints parted with to pull off the draft-day trade (pick No. 27 pick in ’18, pick No. 147 in ’18, and their first-round pick in ’19), the immediate feeling when New Orleans was suddenly on the clock was that Sean Payton was moving up to select the heir apparent to Drew Brees in Louisville quarterback and Heisman Trophy winner Lamar Jackson. Instead, the Saints paid a steep price for a relative unknown out of University of Texas at San Antonio.
Playing opposite of All-Pro edge rusher Cameron Jordan, Davenport shared time with fellow edge rusher Trey Hendrickson for the first three years of his tenure with the Saints. As a second-year player in 2019, Davenport burst onto the scene with career-highs in pressures (51) and pressure rate (14.4%), to go with six sacks. In 2020, Davenport missed five games due to injury, which opened the door for Hendrickson to shine with 13.5 sacks in his ever-important contract year. Once Hendrickson signed a four-year, $60 million deal with the Cincinnati Bengals the following offseason, the expectation was for Davenport to make a jump as the full-time sidekick to Jordan for New Orleans’ front.
Davenport couldn’t shake the injury bug in 2021 and again missed five games. However, the former first-round pick set a career high with nine sacks while playing in only 11 games. The Saints experimented with Davenport to help maximize his freakish skillset by letting him to go to work as both a hand-in-the-dirt and two-point-stance edge rusher.
And although Davenport led the Saints with a 12.1% pressure rate while playing in 15 games this past season, he only played on 50% of New Orleans’ defensive snaps, the lowest percentage since his rookie season in 2018. For whatever reason, the Saints opted to give 2019 undrafted free-agent Carl Granderson essentially an equal amount of pass rush snaps as Davenport. But to Granderson’s credit, he recorded 5.5 sacks on a below-average 7.8% pressure rate this past season. Speaking of Davenport’s 2022 season, the stat sheet definitely leaves a lot to be desired with only 0.5 sack to his name. Which, coincidentally, came against the Vikings during their Week 4 tilt across the pond.
Yes, generating sacks are why edge rushers like Davenport are picked in the top-half of NFL drafts. But (and I can’t believe I’m about to quote this guy) Los Angeles Chargers head coach Brandon Staley said it best when attempting to quantify value of rushing the passer.
Sack production is one of those illusioned stats in the league. Hurries and hits, from a data standpoint, is a predictable measure of future success. Sack production can spike where pressure production is more consistent over time.
While Staley wasn’t directly referring to Davenport with this 2021 soundbite, Minnesota’s new edge rusher is precisely the kind of player who has proven to generate consistent pressure throughout this career — even if the sack totals aren’t where he or his team would like them to be.
Below are Davenport’s pressure rates throughout his career:
- ’22 — 12.1%
- ’21 — 14.1%
- ’20 — 12.9%
- ’19 — 14.4%
- ’18 — 10.1%
The play above is a perfect representation of what Staley is talking about when discussing pressures and hurries versus sacks. Although Davenport doesn’t get home with his ability to create pressure and force the ball out of Baker Mayfield‘s hands, he still self-generates a win for his defense on this particular play by forcing the incompletion. Think of it like a baseball player who’s consistently generating a quality barrel rate with superb exit velocity, only to still slump with a subpar batting average. Last May, The Athletic’s Aaron Gleeman interviewed Carlos Correa in the midst of his early-season slump which saw the superstar shortstop bat .167 in his first 16 games as a Twin.
“There’s one thing you can control and that’s barreling the ball,” Correa said. “If you’re hitting balls over 100 mph and they’re outs, on the stat sheet it won’t show up, but the expected stats will let you know.”
Correa then said something so specific that I made a mental note.
“If you hit a ball 107 mph, with a 15-degree launch angle, it’s a high expected batting average and expected slugging percentage on that one. Just do what you can control and that’s barreling balls.”
If baseball players like Correa focus on controlling the controllables by barreling baseballs, edge rushers in football control their controllables by winning their individual matchups and generating pressures on the quarterback. And like the eventual base hits that will come as a result of consistently barreling balls from the dish, sacks will inevitably come if you’re consistently creating pressures.
(Is it that obvious I’m counting down the days until MLB’s Opening Day?)
While edge rushers make their money off rushing the passer, that doesn’t mean Davenport is only effective on passing downs. In fact, Davenport has demonstrated to be a force against the run throughout much of his Saints tenure. However, Davenport experienced a noticeable dip in his ability to wreck opposing rushing attacks this past season.
Below are Davenport’s run-stop rates over his five years in New Orleans:
- ’22 — 4.7%
- ’21 — 9.8%
- ’20 — 11.1%
- ’19 — 5.4%
- ’18 — 8.1%
For additional context. In 2020, 92 NFL edge rushers played 140-plus snaps against the run. Davenport’s 11.1% run-stop rate was third-best out of those 92 edge rushers. In 2021, 79 NFL edge rushers played 130-plus snaps against the run. Davenport’s 9.8% run-stop rate was, again, third-best amongst qualifying NFL edge rushers.
Like 99% of professional football players, Davenport comes to the Vikings with a few question marks. And this can be identified by him missing a combined 19 games over his five seasons with the Saints — and his alarming sack total and recent drop as an elite run defender in 2022. However, defensive coordinator and former four-year New England Patriots scout Brian Flores has to be excited about Davenport’s freakish athletic traits, and his career’s worth of profiling as a premier NFL edge rusher with a consistent pressure rate.
The hope is that Flores will be able to use Davenport’s unique athleticism and help turn him into one of the league’s best pass rushers — just as Flores did for former first-round edge rushers Chandler Jones with the Patriots and Jaelan Phillips with the Miami Dolphins. On a one-year “prove it” deal, there’s little-to-no risk for the Vikings to take a swing on a highly promising edge rusher who should theoretically be entering his prime at his age-27 season in 2023.