High price of pass-rushers led to Saints' draft-day stunner

METAIRIE, La. -- "It's got to be a quarterback. It must be Lamar Jackson."

That was the prevailing reaction when the New Orleans Saints made one of the biggest, boldest moves in this year's draft -- trading away next year's first-round pick and a fifth-rounder in 2018 to move up from No. 27 to No. 14.

And it was a fair reaction, considering that, well, no team in NFL history has ever made a move quite like it for a non-quarterback.

Instead, the Saints threw a curve ball, selecting defensive end Marcus Davenport from the University of Texas-San Antonio.

How rare was the move?

It was just the third time in the past 15 years that a team had packaged two first-round picks to move up and draft a non-quarterback (the others being receiver Julio Jones at No. 6 overall in 2011 and receiver Sammy Watkins at No. 4 in 2014).

And, according to ESPN Stats & Information, it was the first time in the common-draft era that a team had traded two first-round picks to acquire a pick outside of the top 12 for any player, regardless of position. (The previous high was set last year, when the Houston Texans traded a future first-rounder to move up from No. 25 to No. 12 and draft quarterback Deshaun Watson).

In other words, the Saints paid a "quarterback price" to go up and get Davenport.

For that, they were widely panned by many draft analysts (even though most agreed that Davenport was worth the 14th pick).

But more than that, the Saints' stunning move underscored just how important -- and just how difficult -- it has become for NFL teams to acquire top pass-rushers.

A strong argument could be made that elite edge rushers have become the second most elusive commodity behind franchise quarterbacks.

"I think pressure traits are hard to come by, and when you have them you protect them and you generally don't let them out of the building," Saints general manager Mickey Loomis said.

To Loomis' point, defensive ends DeMarcus Lawrence, Ezekiel Ansah, Jason Pierre-Paul, Chandler Jones and Melvin Ingram all were retained by their teams with the franchise tag over the past two years -- even though defensive ends have come with the highest price tag of any position outside of quarterback (about $17 million).

The last elite edge rusher to actually hit the open market was Olivier Vernon in 2016 -- and he earned a whopping five-year, $85 million deal from the New York Giants. Last year, the Green Bay Packers ponied up on a five-year, $60 million deal to keep edge rusher Nick Perry.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers general manager Jason Licht wholeheartedly agreed with his NFC South rival Loomis -- which is why the Buccaneers made a big, bold move themselves to trade a third-round draft pick to the Giants for Pierre-Paul in March, absorbing the final three years and $39.5 million of his contract in the process.

"They're hard to find. The really, really good ones are hard to find," said Licht, who also signed free agent pass-rusher Vinny Curry to a three-year, $23.5 million contract this offseason. "Because if you need an edge rusher, you can't draft just anyone. You have to really like them, and they have to be talented.

"We felt like we were ahead of the curve, knew what this draft was going to be like for edge rushers and how hard they were going to be to get. That's why we pulled off the trade with JPP. We feel good about what we gave up for him, considering what the draft was like. So, you have some guys giving up a future first [-round pick] to move up and take one. I would consider the same thing if we were in that position. Luckily, we felt like JPP was good for our team."

Now, whether Davenport can develop into an elite rusher is certainly up for debate. Even the Saints admit he is still a raw, developmental project, who just bloomed from 215 pounds to 6-foot-6, 264 pounds over the past two years at the fledgling FBS program.

But the Saints were obviously willing to bet big on his rare athletic traits because they know how hard it is to find them in either free agency or later in the draft.

It's not impossible to find elite pass-rushers outside of Round 1 (as recent undrafted Pro Bowlers such as Michael Bennett, Cameron Wake and Lorenzo Alexander have proven). But it's certainly not easy.

Last season, nine of the 10 edge rushers initially selected to the Pro Bowl were top-34 draft picks.

That's why the Denver Broncos also decided to stand pat at No. 5 in this year's draft when top edge rusher Bradley Chubb fell into their laps -- even though they had been in talks to trade down with the quarterback-needy Buffalo Bills.

In other words, the Broncos turned down a "quarterback price" to take the edge rusher instead.

"We didn't trade because Bradley was there," said John Elway, the Broncos' president of football operations/general manager. "We just felt that where we were and with Bradley staring at us, we couldn't pass him up. We thought that he was one of the best defensive players in the draft, if not the best defensive player in the draft. He really was the best pass-rusher in our opinion. We really didn't want to pass on him.

"You can never have enough pass-rushers."

-- ESPN reporters Jenna Laine and Jeff Legwold contributed to this report.