INDIANAPOLIS — With the NFL moving more and more to base nickel defenses, a prospect’s versatility to play at multiple spots is invaluable, which is why we’re starting to see the rise of Auburn’s Marlon Davidson in this 2020 NFL Draft class.
Davidson was a starter at multiple spots on the defensive line from freshman to senior year and has 17 career sacks on his resume, including 7 1/2 sacks in 2019 alone. But those numbers could have been even higher, especially because he was asked to do a lot of dirty work: two gapping against the run and taking on doubles as well as keeping the contain instead of rushing upfield.
When he got his one-on-one pass rush looks, he dominated. At 6-foot-3, 303 pounds with 33-inch arms, his blend of power, quickness and length makes him one of the most fascinating studies in this loaded defensive line class. He can rush off the edge because of his power and he’s as athletic as most strong-side defensive ends shown in his bend on this strip-sack against Arkansas in 2019.
When he moves inside to 3-technique — the role that accentuates his skill set the most at the next level — he is too quick and explosive for guards to stay in front of him in pass protection. He has the first step to quickly knife through the gap, but he also the length and power to match guards at the point of attack and disengage off blocks, like he did against John Simpson at the 2020 Senior Bowl.
Davidson can beat offensive linemen in one-on-one looks from just about every alignment at the line of scrimmage, and when he was given those opportunities at Auburn, specifically in his senior season, he took advantage. He can win with length, power, quickness and a wide array of counter moves.
He said he embraces being that “positionless” role on the defensive line, adding that as long as he’s on the field, he will make an impact.
“They’re looking for a lot more guys that can move anywhere,” Davidson said Thursday at the 2020 NFL Scouting Combine. “I can be that strong-side defensive end rushing off the edge on first and second down. Then moving inside at 3-technique with my athletic ability against the bigger guards.”
As a result, Davidson’s game-planning during the week was a little different. But he embraced having more responsibilities on his plate than the average player.
“I studied my opponent first where I played at, which was predominantly against the left tackle,” Davidson said. “Then I went to the second guy I’d play against, which at the 4i, would be against the right tackle and the guard. Then I’ll study the center and how he sets because the majority of the time I’m there, it’s a passing down.”
To emphasize that position flexibility as one of the most valuable aspects of his draft profile, Davidson added weight to get to 303 pounds before the combine. He’s up about 15 pounds from what he said he played at in 2019.
“I’ve shown that versatility, but now I want to show that I can run and move at this weight,” Davidson said.
If Derrick Brown wasn’t a complete monster and overshadowed his production in 2019, Davidson’s hype in this draft class would likely be through the roof for what you see on tape. He said his time is coming, and it’s not just because of his athleticism and versatility, but because of how he approaches competition each and every rep.
“I have a lot of dog in me. I’m not one of those guys who is going to sit there and get beat all game,” Davidson said. “I’m going to go out there and whoop their tail. Then I’m going to come back and whip it again. Then I’ll come back and do it again, so they’re like, ‘Damn, I have to go up against Marlon Davidson every play.’”
There is no better motivation to play football as a defensive lineman than to see the opponent across the line of scrimmage and know that there are no limits on physicality.
“I can literally go out there and hit a man consistently, and pound him, and the police won’t come,” Davidson said. “That is the most enjoyable moment about ball — just to go out there and really abuse somebody. They won’t say nothing about it in the press or anything. I ain’t in no handcuffs, headlines, mugshots or anything – I’m just out there physically abusing the man.”
Regardless of where or when he’s drafted in April, this sport is more than just a game to Davidson.
He made a promise in the seventh grade to his late mother, Cynthia Carter, ensuring that she wouldn’t have to stress or work anymore, never have to worry about money again and have a house right next to him.
Carter died unexpectedly in 2015, in the middle of Davidson’s junior year of high school, and at that moment, fulfilling the promise and playing in the NFL became his mission.
“I wake up to my phone alarm saying, “Do what mom says is best,’” he said. “I wake up at Auburn every day, look at a picture of her and say, ‘This is what I’ve got to do; I’ve made this promise.’ Even on the days where I wake up and don’t feel like getting out of bed, I look at her picture and know it’s time to go. It’s something bigger than me. The last thing I told my mom, that’s something I’ve got to do.”
With that mission on his mind, Davidson has a point-blank message for the rest of the league when he arrives.
“I’m going to continue to show people that I am Marlon Davidson, and I am the best at what I do,” Davidson said.