Allen Park — Kelvin Sheppard has been through something like this before.
The Detroit Lions linebackers coach is tasked this summer with coaching a former teammate, veteran linebacker Jarrad Davis.
It’s not all that different from what Sheppard experienced with Romeo Okwara; the two were once teammates with the New York Giants and Sheppard became Okwara’s boss when he joined the new Lions staff last year. And yet, this situation is a little bit more unique. Sheppard, to a degree, holds the keys to Davis’ football future.
A year ago, Davis, a former first-round pick by Detroit, opted for a change of scenery and left the team. He signed with the New York Jets on a one-year deal worth a cool $7 million.
Davis started just five games, played in only nine, and finished the campaign without a sack, forced fumble or tackle-for-loss for the first time in his career. His football career is now on one of its last legs. There’s no guarantee he’ll make the team. Sheppard won’t let that fact get in the way of him enjoying Davis’ presence.
“Oh, it’s outstanding,” Sheppard said of having Davis back in the mix. “After the first two days of him like, ‘Man, Shep, this is kind of crazy,’ I’m like, ‘It’s no different, I’m just standing in front of you. When I sat next to you, I was telling you what to do all the time.'”
The relationship between Davis and Sheppard, who played together during the final season of Sheppard’s eight-year NFL career in 2018, is a bonus for everyone in the linebackers room. With the exception of Davis and Alex Anzalone, the linebacking core in Detroit is rather young.
“For the younger guys in the room, I lay it all out there for them,” Sheppard said. “They all know I played with JD and how I feel about him, but he’s not excused (from) the standard of the room. And when they see the way I treat him, when they see the way I coach him, when they see see the way he conducts himself, they have no choice.
“If I’m able to really curse him out every day and coach him hard, the other guys are like, ‘Oh, man, if he does it to him, I mean, I have no choice but to fall in line.'”
Davis has not had an easy road in the NFL. He was drafted No. 21 overall in 2017. With a 6-foot-1, 240-pound frame, he looked like he was built in a lab and had downhill speed to boot. He had high character; he was obsessed with football.
He was, in essence, everything that you would want to build around from a defensive leadership standpoint. But by his fourth season and final in Detroit, he was playing just 29.7% of snaps.
Sheppard saw the downward trajectory — how much it pained Davis to not find the success for which he was looking.
“I was there during the midst of it, and it did get dark for that player, in terms of football and life,” Sheppard said.
The main benefit for Davis in his new coach-player relationship is not that he’ll receive special treatment; although Sheppard does hold a lot of the keys to the future of Davis’ career.
But mainly, the biggest upside for Davis is that he’ll be working with someone who knows how to coach him, specifically. It’s the same principle that Sheppard applied last season when coaching Okwara, whom he was teammates with on the Giants from 2016-17.
“The reality is, the old-school mentality of coaches, it’s not cool to say in front of a microphone, but it’s football or nothing. Well, that’s not true. The second you attack a player with ‘It’s football or nothing for you,’ you’ve lost the player because there’s so much more to life,” Sheppard said.
“To me, and this is my own deal, but if you could capture a player outside of the white lines, they’ll do anything for you inside the white lines, because it’s easy here. It’s really off the field, the mental stuff that guys deal with in their personal lives. … They’ll give you everything they got out there if they know you care more off the field than you do on the field.”
If there was a knock against Davis’ initial Lions tenure, it wasn’t his hustle. But there is a detriment to coming up empty, to not being put in situations where one can succeed, to feeling like the work isn’t working.
Sheppard’s job now isn’t to hold Davis’ hand, but to make sure that he reaps what he sows — to put him in that position to succeed and give Davis a chance to show enough that Lions decision makers will view him as a necessary asset. The name of the game is versatility.
“The guys in my room are one, trying to make this team when they show up to training game, and then No. 2, carve out a role,” Sheppard said. “And the best way to do that is to be a versatile player.”
Whether that challenge will be met should be sorted out over the next month or two. But Sheppard knows one thing: Davis will meet the obstacle with a positive attitude.
“You could give JD any challenge,” Sheppard said. “You could tell him, ‘You’re playing nose tackle spot today,’ and his crazy butt would be in there trying to do it.”