Old and new: Saints rookies break out on Drew Brees' big night

METAIRIE, La. -- Monday night was all about the old vet, Drew Brees, giving one of the best performances of his 18-year career while breaking the NFL record for career passing yards.

But the young guys had a pretty awesome night, too.

Rookie defensive end Marcus Davenport and rookie receiver Tre'Quan Smith had breakout performances during the New Orleans Saints' 43-19 rout of the Washington Redskins -- a promising sign for a 4-1 team on the rise heading into the Week 6 bye.

The Saints didn't get much quantity out of this year's draft class, having already cut four of their seven picks. So it's nice to see this level of quality out of their top two selections.

Smith, obviously, had the Saints' catch of the year -- reeling in the 62-yard touchdown pass that put Brees in the record books. And the third-round draft pick from Central Florida finished with three catches for 119 yards and two touchdowns.

Not bad for a guy who had just one catch for 18 yards over the first four games.

"I'll just have to go see that ball in the Hall of Fame," cracked Smith, who was perfectly happy that he didn't get to keep the memento from his first NFL touchdown catch. "I knew I wasn't getting that one back."

Davenport, meanwhile, had a sack/forced fumble, a tackle for loss on a run play and a pass defensed as he continues to look better and better each week. The first-round pick also had another almost-sack/forced fumble that was ruled an incomplete pass after a replay challenge. And he had another batted pass that didn't count because the Redskins were awarded a timeout.

Davenport, who also swallowed up running back Saquon Barkley for a 7-yard loss in Week 4, now has two sacks, three tackles for loss, two passes defensed, a forced fumble and nine tackles as his role continues to grow each week as a rotational backup.

"You know, a game like this can really help relative to a confidence level. Because you can wish for confidence and hope for confidence, and generally it's a byproduct of demonstrated success on the field," Saints coach Sean Payton said, reciting one of his favorite lines from mentor Bill Parcells. "So that goes a long way for a Marcus Davenport or a Tre'Quan Smith. Those events are specifically what give you confidence."

Confidence is a key word for Davenport, in particular.

Although the Saints coveted him so much in this year's draft that they traded away next year's first-round pick to move up from No. 27 to No. 14 to get him, he is still considered a raw, developmental prospect from Texas-San Antonio.

And Davenport has talked often over the past month or two about the importance of gaining confidence and a belief that he truly belongs at this level.

"Really, I think it's just been more of the confidence level and working with my coaches and my teammates, they've been such a blessing. ... They've really helped me grow," Davenport said. "It's been more of me accepting the challenge."

The 6-foot-6, 265-pounder weighed just 215 as a sophomore before he really started to bloom over his final two college seasons (15 sacks, 27.5 tackles for loss and four forced fumbles). And he is still adjusting to playing with his hand in the dirt after mostly standing up in a two-point stance in college (he does a little of both for the Saints).

When I suggested to Davenport that it looks like he has been playing at 100 mph in recent weeks, he smiled.

"Shout out to Coach Nielsen, because that's all he wants," Davenport said of Saints defensive line coach Ryan Nielsen. "That's how we have to practice -- 110, so we can make our base level 100.

"It's just a mindset lately."

Davenport said he still has plenty of room to grow -- especially since he is admittedly a hard person to please when it comes to grading himself. He listed consistency, pad level and responding to adjustments by the offensive linemen during games among his priorities.

But his snap count keeps growing along with his impact as he rotates at right end with veteran Alex Okafor.

Smith, meanwhile, doesn't have as clear of a path to playing time, since he was filling in for injured veteran Ted Ginn Jr. on Monday night.

If Ginn returns from his knee injury after the Week 6 bye, Smith's opportunities will obviously be affected in a group that also includes go-to guy Michael Thomas and steadily improving fourth-year pro Cameron Meredith.

However, the Saints can't ignore Smith's big-play potential, which also was on display throughout training camp and the preseason. The 6-2, 210-pounder, who has an enticing combination of size and speed, ranked in the top four among all NFL players in the preseason in both catches (15) and receiving yards (189).

Smith was admittedly a bit of a "late bloomer" in college, but he finished with 59 catches for 1,171 yards and 13 touchdowns as a senior during UCF's undefeated run.

And Payton also was complimentary of the "textbook" block by Smith on Alvin Kamara's game-clinching 49-yard touchdown run a week earlier against the New York Giants.

"We've seen a lot of that from him already. It just hasn't been demonstrated necessarily out here on game night," Payton said. "But we've seen someone that's got exceptional speed."

Smith was open this summer about how he still needed to master the playbook and learn more than just one position. And he said film study has really helped him over the past month.

More than anything, though, he showed the ability to be opportunistic.

"With Ted being out, I knew that I had to step up, and I knew my teammates counted on me and they believed in me and trusted me," Smith said. "I just was telling myself, 'It's my time to shine. You're up. Don't make any mistakes.' And I did just that. I didn't make any mistakes tonight -- I did my job.

"It's always a confidence-booster when you know you can make plays and they give you the ball and you make plays. Who don't want to make plays when their number's called?"