METAIRIE, La. -- Sean Payton started to believe that Marcus Davenport might be the player to help get the Saints back to the Super Bowl not all that long after their 2017 season ended in bizarre, heartbreaking fashion by blowing a late lead on a miracle play by the Minnesota Vikings.
In the aftermath of that 61-yard heave from Case Keenum to Stefon Diggs, the Saints coach along with general manager Mickey Loomis and the entire scouting staff turned their full attention on how to best utilize the 2018 draft to get the team back to a Lombardi Trophy.
The franchise's misfortunes had reversed in large part due to a loaded 2017 draft class, and over the course of the winter the Saints would become convinced that their 2018 Super Bowl aspirations might be best served with a laser focus on a particular player who could get to the opposing quarterback and negate the kind of play Keenum (who threw for 318 yards) made to end New Orleans' season in the divisional round.
With the draft short of elite edge rushers, and such players in their prime basically never available in free agency, Marcus Davenport, from football outpost Texas San Antonio, continued a steady rise up the Saints' draft board. Davenport was considered by many the second-best edge player in the draft. The first, Bradley Chubb, was a sure-fire top-five pick and would cost far too much to move up and take. And Davenport would ultimately become their first-round pick, as the team moved up from 27th overall to pick 14 while parting with their 2019 first-round pick.
Throughout the assessment process the Saints projected that a raw player from a small conference with some freakish athleticism – but who often played inside as a five-technique tackle – could blossom into a pass-rushing force to complement All-Pro Cameron Jordan and put this defense, and football team, over the top.
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Jordan was the only Saint to notch more than five sacks a year ago and Payton is now hopeful Jordan won't be alone this year as he detailed the thinking behind the Saints' process recently with me during a sitdown interview at the team's headquarters.
"It's something we felt that could help our team right now," Payton said of the trade that rocked the first round. "And obviously there is downside and you give up some compensation and you give up some flexibility next year. But we are worried about this year, too, and our focus is on winning this year, and that was the cost to move from where we were in the first round to getting really into a different part of that round."
Many have debated if the Saints gave up too much. And evaluations of Davenport -- who had minor thumb surgery this summer but is expected to be full-go for training camp -- certainly vary by the team. But the Saints tried to follow the same decision-making tenets that served them so well a year ago. With Marshon Lattimore, Ryan Ramczyk, Alvin Kamara and Alex Anzalone part of their historic draft haul, Saints brass had a consensus "vision" for how Davenport could impact them in the short and long term that became irresistible, similar to the vision from the 2017 draft class.
Payton first became aware of the late-rising player -- there was little fanfare about Davenport entering his senior season -- when the Saints began what they call their "front-board" meetings to start dissecting Senior Bowl and combine participants in January. He would quickly become a player who Payton and Loomis discussed frequently, and a prospect they soon discerned would have no chance of being available at the later stages of the first round, where they were slated to pick.
"I was aware of him early on, and you're looking closely at the position fit and looking at the prototype and size," Payton told me. "He's someone that we felt fit a lot of the things we were looking for and he can also play defensive end, and we kind of put a premium on that position. So from that point to when we are entering the daft -- and we were selecting where we were in the later part of first round -- you know if we were to go up it would have to be for a specific player. And in fact, when we are grading these players like [Saquon] Barkley, the running back, or other specific players, the question might be before the final grade -- would we move to get this player? And [Davenport] was one that we felt we would do that for."
Davenport began to stand out for many at the Senior Bowl, registering a sack of eventual top-overall pick Baker Mayfield, but was still being played primarily inside. Not how the Saints envisioned him. By the time the combine concluded, and Davenport displayed his athletic prowess in all of its glory, there was no more chatter about him getting past the top half of the first round, thanks in part to impressive measurables (6-feet-6, 264 pounds) with great explosiveness and leaping ability.
Payton said the Saints were as aggressive as any team in the league working the phones in the weeks leading up the draft, something I heard repeatedly from rival executives back in April. They had exploratory conversations with the Raiders -- who let it be known early on they were willing to move out of the 10th overall spot (and they ultimately did trade down with the Cardinals) -- figuring that is where the sweet spot for Davenport might start forming, knowing four quarterbacks and a running back (positions the Saints weren't interested in) were going to go in the top 10, thus pushing some defensive players down the board.
Baltimore, with the 16th overall pick and super-motivated to move back (they ended up doing so twice, in fact), was another potential hotspot for a trade and the Saints held talks about that pick, too, knowing there was only so far back they could afford to go and still expect Davenport to be available (Baltimore ended up trading with Buffalo, as Bills GM Brandon Beane detailed in our extended chat here). The Saints wound up pulling it off with the Packers for the 14th pick, ending countless hours of trade discussions in the round.
"It was really just trying to get feelers out," Payton said, "because when the clock starts for a team, man, there are only 10 minutes so you are just trying to get an idea of who might be interest. And when you have done this long enough you start to build relationships, and there are certain guys you can pick up the phones and if they have an interest you can do a deal in under a minute. And there are other guys where it's going to take more time, so that when each team is on the clock you can reference a conversation or at least get a sense of who isn't interested [ahead of time] and maybe not waste your time."
Much has been made of parting with the 2019 first-round pick, though one can understand why the Saints would anticipate that pick also being quite late if they continue their upward trajectory. But given his physical gifts and potential, the team's needs and the fact that future Hall of Fame quarterback Drew Brees is now 39, there was a strong consensus within the organization to make this move.
"There is always a premium on that position, and on pressure players -- corners, left tackles, those are positions that are hard to find when the season ends in free agency," Payton said. "It's not impossible, but it's hard, and we felt like he was a pressure player and we felt like we had a good vision for him and we felt it was a need. It was a position that we thought was one we wanted to address in some way, shape or form."
There is a tangible conviction in his voice whenever Payton speaks about the thinking that led to this brash trade and Davenport's importance to their short- and long-term goals. He and Loomis have long been willing to take risks. Perhaps this was their biggest.
"There is a point at which we are only going up if it's the player that is available," Payton said. "And then is it comfortable? And are we comfortable with the deal that you have? You know a part of that process with the draft, there is some good fortune that takes place, but it's also, I think, spending enough time and trying to really hit on the things a player does well. Do we have a clear vision for the player? And that part of it has served us well.
"So in the room we unanimously felt like we see him playing right end, and we see these are the things he can immediately help us with, and here are the things we're going to continue to work on. He's young, I love his size and his work ethic, and there is a grit element to the way he plays. So there is a projection with all of these young players, and hopefully we have the same success we had a year ago with this class. But I think it's really being decisive and having a plan."
If Payton has anything close to the hit rate from the 2017 draft, I like the chances of Who Dat Nation flooding to Atlanta in droves in February and taking over the Super Bowl hosting stadium of their hated rival. Even if it means skipping Mardi Gras.