Everything about Marlon Davidson is unique. He’s a single digit rocking defensive lineman who taunts quarterbacks with the #3. He was a four-year starter at Auburn, one of the rare individuals who started as a true freshman in that semi-professional conference. Most importantly, he’s a light 300 pound 3-4 defensive end who will pop out wide to rush from the edge.
We know tweeners in the NFL. Safeties who can play deep middle and the slot. Defensive backs who can line up at linebacker in a Big or Buffalo Nickel. Edge rushers who line up over the center to create interior pressure. Tight ends and running backs who can bump out wide and turn into a pure wide receiver. These players allow the personnel in the huddle to morph into some unthinkable offensive formation. They permit the defense to evolve into a variety of different shapes while keeping the same players on the field.
What I have never seen is a 3-4 300 pound defensive end bounce out wide and turn into a pure edge rusher. Marlon Davidson is just that. Auburn is college football chaos, and Davidson was one of their craziest loons.
This is a pure pass rushing situation. 2nd and 16. It doesn’t get better than this. At this down and distance, Davidson (#3) pops out to become a stand-up rusher against the left tackle (#77).
The tackle has a fine set, but what Davidson does well here is delay contact. He takes a sharp path to the tackle’s outside shoulder; when he makes contact, he turns to the tackle and throws his shoulder into his chest, giving the tackle a smaller target. In this same motion, Davidson dips his inside arm under the tackle’s punch and rips around the block. The tackle’s hands slide up to his inside shoulder when he punches. There’s nothing for the tackle to grasp onto. Marlon then uses his outside arm to knock his punch off and his inside arm to create separation. The bend is perfect. He’s flat and even with Joe Burrow. He’s just a little too late.
Even at 300+ pounds, Davidson is a more refined pass rusher than most of the nihilistic youth. In the Outback Bowl, he fakes the inside move against Minnesota’s left tackle and then rips wide. It’s the exact same rush A.J. Epenesa crushed this tackle (#70) with during his 2.5 sack game last year. The quarterback is smashed from behind. Davidson, as a 3-4 defensive end, replicates the same move a pure and possible first round edge rusher pulled off.
Davidson is now a stand-up rusher over the left tackle in a nickel defense.
Alabama sells play-action by pulling the guard, and the tackle (#70) hinges to feign the same backside power run assignment. Because of this, the tackle has a funky set. Davidson doesn’t bite and pursues the run. Instead he watches the backfield. Davidson starts his rush once the running back clears the backfield empty-handed. He extends his arms to pop the tackle and keeps those scaly things off him. His inside foot is even with the tackle’s sternum once he pounces wide to get around the block. The tackle chases back after him, but finds himself warded off by Davidson’s inside arm. This is a doughnut in a parking lot. Davidson’s leap leaves the quarterback stumbling. So close once again.
Davidson could use a few more pass rushing moves. Long arm extensions. Ghosting the outside move and ripping inside. Consistent chop rips like this against the left tackle (#70) would be a welcome addition to his repertoire.
Most importantly, Davidson needs to develop some sort of bullrush. All that size needs to translate into additional power. It’s bizarre for a player of his size, strength, and power to not create more havoc as a heads-up rusher. Most of his pass rushing production came along the edge. That’s the foundation of his game. It’s like he’s a 7-footer who doesn’t want to post up; he wants to dribble the ball up the court and run the offense.
When rushing along the interior, Davidson creates pressure with hands and space. He doesn’t go through anyone. He doesn’t have the pure quickness to beat offensive linemen off the snap. Here it’s a three man rush on 2nd and 11. Davidson is the right defensive end.
Future first round selection and Grady Jarrett comp Derrick Brown is the nose tackle. He draws three defenders. Rather than get caught up in that muck, Davidson bounces his rush wide against the left tackle (#77). The tackle meets him square and extended. Marlon doesn’t have the off-snap power to create any advantage. He’s caught. With the lights off, Davidson fumbles for the tackle’s collar, extends him, yanks him down by his shirt, and swims over the top with his outside arm. Vicious. The tackle gets a mouthful of ants and wildflowers. Burrow maneuvers and just barely puts the ball above Davidson’s open arms.
Here, on this play, Davidson is the right hand down defensive end. He of course feigns the outside rush and tries to rip inside. The tackle gobbles this rush up easily.
As a hand-down defender, Davidson is too easy to block. There’s limited space on the interior. The defender has to fly off the ball. Moves have to be quick and crisp. Davidson doesn’t bring that. He also doesn’t have the pure strength to overwhelm guards or even tackles on these rushes, something that’s needed to anchor offensive linemen in place to open up off shoulder rushes. He’s a completely different rusher inside than he is out on the edge.
As a run defender, Davidson is a textbook. He punches, extends, searches for the ball, and then gets in on run stops.
On 2nd and 9, Minnesota is running inside zone. Davidson has great pad level. He takes the right guard (#61) on head on and has the leverage advantage. He plays the right guard while not allowing the right tackle (#77) to get up to the second level on this double team. Once the back receives the ball, Davidson swipes the guard away and throws himself into the back.
Here it’s first and ten. Auburn is in a nickel defense with three defensive linemen on the strong side of the formation and only ol’ Davidson on the weak side. The Gophers run outside zone to the weak side. Davidson grabs both the guard (#61) and the tackle (#77) by the throat, holding each one along the line of scrimmage and preventing them from getting to the second level. This gives the linebacker a free path to the quarterback; he screams through the gap and hits the spike into the net that Davidson sets up for him. I haven’t seen someone do this since Brandon Williams pulled it off in Baltimore.
Davidson also can’t be blocked with a tight end. As an edge defender against the run, he relishes every second when a tight end is lined up against him one-on-one. He consistently uses pad level and extension to move the line of scrimmage backwards. From there he sits and waits, wiggling like the snapping turtle’s wormy tongue, waiting for the ball carrier to come swimming through his gap.
Marlon isn’t an explosive, get-in-the-backfield disruptor. He only had 3.5 tackles for a loss last year. He isn’t like Brown. He isn’t an avalanche. He’s a boulder that doesn’t roll. These are boring snaps, but they are productive snaps that prevent the running game from creating successful plays.
In the NFL, Davidson doesn’t have a clear role. What do you do with a defensive end who rushes like someone who weighs 50 pounds less? What do you do with someone who can pull plays like this off?
The gross, banal part of our brain that likes standardization and finds comfort in the ordinary wants Marlon Davidson to be a 3-4 defensive end who would need to get stronger to figure out how to bullrush into the backfield and then use his wiggle edge rush moves on passing rush downs as a ‘3’ or ‘4i’ technique against guards. This is how players like him are typically used. You don’t see a 300 pound stand-up pass rusher. Those people don’t exist. Davidson is the only one of his kind. He is some bizarre squirt of football evolution.
There’s beauty in the strange and extraordinary. Even in the NFL, Davidson needs to be used how he was in Auburn—in a variety of ways. He needs to be the first squatty 3-4 defensive end who rushes off the edge. He needs to be an Animorph who turns from Antonio Smith into Von Miller as the down and distance increases.
Will it work? I have no idea. But Davidson has legitimate skills and technique that should translate to the next level. There’s the possibility the entirety of his absurd skill set can carry to the top level. If it does, he will be one of the NFL’s unicorns. That’s the type of versatility that’s worth betting on.