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Saints need Marcus Davenport to be their next breakout pass-rusher

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METAIRIE, La. -- The New Orleans Saints let defensive end Trey Hendrickson get away in free agency after he had a breakout 2020 season no one saw coming.

So now, more than ever, the Saints need defensive end Marcus Davenport to have a breakout of his own.

Davenport has shown impressive glimpses during his first three seasons. But thanks in large part to injuries, the 24-year-old has not yet made the kind of consistent impact the Saints were hoping for when they paid a steep price to trade up and land him with the 14th pick in the 2018 NFL draft. They traded away their 2019 first-rounder and 2018 fifth-rounder to move up 13 spots.

Now they also have a big decision looming on whether to double-down on that investment. They have to decide whether to pick up Davenport’s fifth-year option by May 3, which would cost them a guaranteed $9.5 million in 2022.

That would be a significant wager, considering the Saints’ severe salary-cap constraints. And if they do it, they’ll be banking on his potential more than his production.

Either way, the Saints are expecting big things from Davenport in 2021, when he will help anchor a defensive line that also parted ways with veteran tackles Malcom Brown and Sheldon Rankins during an offseason purge forced by the NFL’s reduced salary cap.

Coaches and teammates have always lauded Davenport for his rare physical traits since he was first drafted as a raw developmental prospect out of Texas San Antonio.

When his All-Pro mentor, Cameron Jordan, was asked if he could share his expectations for Davenport this season, Jordan quickly replied, “That’s easy.”

“Marcus is a physically blessed athlete that has shown flashes of how good he could be when healthy,” Jordan said. “This year will be the year to affirm that the flashes he has shown already can be a constant.”

Defensive coordinator Dennis Allen has made similar comments, last year calling Davenport “one of the more explosive players that I’ve had the opportunity to coach.”

Adding to the optimism is the fact Davenport will be healthy for a full offseason for the first time in his career. He had toe surgery following his rookie year after he missed three games in the middle of that 2018 season and then played through the injury over the team’s final eight games. Then he needed foot surgery after landing on injured reserve in December 2019.

Davenport also missed the first four games of the 2020 season because of elbow and toe injuries -- then later missed a fifth game because of a concussion.

All told, he has missed a total of 12 games in three seasons, including the playoffs.

Davenport has still made an impact in small doses. He had 4.5 sacks, 29 pressures and a forced fumble as a rookie; then six sacks, 37 pressures and three forced fumbles in 2019 before dipping to 1.5 sacks, 31 pressures and zero forced fumbles in 2020.

He has also been a solid run defender for one of the NFL’s best run defenses over the stretch -- which has helped him draw favorable grades from analytical services like Pro Football Focus. PFF rated Davenport as the No. 20 DE in the NFL in 2020. He graded out even higher in 2019.

Neworleans.football did a film study last year pointing out one of Davenport’s specialties is his powerful bull rush, which it charted as one of the most effective in the league midway through last season.

The biggest mystery or disappointment, however, is why Davenport went quiet during the second half of the 2020 season once he was fully healthy.

Davenport started off well after he recovered from the elbow and toe injuries. He made a game-saving sack in the final seconds of Week 7 to knock the Carolina Panthers out of field-goal range. He had six pressures and a half-sack in a win at the Chicago Bears in Week 8. Then he tipped a pass that resulted in an interception in New Orleans’ 38-3 rout at the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in Week 9.

Davenport didn't register another sack the rest of the season, though he did lead the Saints with five pressures in the playoffs, according to NFL Next Gen Stats.

Part of Davenport’s lack of production last season could be attributed to several adjustments. He missed much of the preseason and the entire first month while dealing with injuries. He returned to play more of a backup role behind the surging Hendrickson -- playing about 35 snaps per game in a rotational role. And Davenport said during the season he was getting used to his “new normal” after he had decided to add weight in his legs to try to add power and strengthen his base.

Health is probably the key to all of that.

If he stays healthy, Davenport should have a full offseason to get comfortable with whatever weight he decides to carry. And his snaps should definitely increase after Hendrickson signed with the Cincinnati Bengals. The Saints signed free-agent DE Tanoh Kpassagnon to add depth to a rotation that also includes promising young pass-rusher Carl Granderson. But the plan is for Davenport to seize the starting job and thrive in the role.

The Saints are counting on it.