Jarrad Davis got a poignant piece of advice from one of his former trainers this offseason.
“He said to me, ‘It’s different when you’re at the top of the mountain versus being the wolf climbing the mountain,’” Davis said this week. “And I feel like whenever you’re in that position, when you’re in an adverse situation, having to really come out every day and push and strive, it brings out the best in you and you don’t have an opportunity to say, ‘Ah, I don’t feel good today,’ or, ‘I don’t feel like it,’ because if you do that, you don’t really eat. You starve that day, and it never feels good to starve.”
Five years after the Detroit Lions made him the 21st pick of the NFL draft and installed him as the anchor of their defense, Davis is in his second stint with the team in an entirely different situation.
When the Lions open preseason play tonight against the Atlanta Falcons, Davis will be one of eight off-ball linebackers vying for a roster spot.
The Lions’ leading tackler in 2018, Davis has seen his career dip and arc in ways he never could have imagined when he left Florida as one of the most ferocious linebackers in college football.
He flashed star qualities as a rookie, when he made 96 tackles and forced two turnovers in 14 starts, then expanded his game in 2017, when he finished third on the Lions with six sacks.
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But Davis struggled in pass defense and missed tackles, and when injuries limited him to 11 games in 2019, his play spiraled downhill.
The Lions did not pick up the fifth-year option on Davis’ rookie contract, and Davis said he spent the early part of the 2021 offseason reflecting on his career and wondering if he was done with football.
“I feel like sometimes you go so far and so hard in life that you don’t look at the good things that happen to you, and when you’re trying to master things you only look at the bad so you can correct the bad, but you never appreciate the positive,” Davis said. “You never appreciate what you have, you always try to chase what you want to get. And I think having a chance to stop and really just say, ‘OK, what do I actually have with me? What personality traits, what qualities do I have?’ It helped me kind of see, like, ‘Man, this game is kind of for me.’”
Davis signed a one-year contract with the New York Jets last spring and looked rejuvenated early in training camp before suffering an ankle injury that kept him out the first seven weeks of the season.
He was a part-time player upon his return, still dealing with ankle pain, and when his contract expired in March he signed a one-year, prove-it deal with the Lions.
In Detroit, Davis has impressed his new coaches with his professionalism and physical play, but as the second-oldest player in the linebacker room, he knows that’s not enough to guarantee himself another season of football.
“He’s a pro,” Lions coach Dan Campbell said. “He’s a pro’s pro is what he is. He does everything right. He does everything you ask him to do. And you would think he’s a second-year player by the way he comes in and handles his business, if that makes any sense. Like, he’s got the hunger, and he just wants more. Like, ‘Give me all you got. I’ll take anything you got.’ … He still believes he can get better.”
Davis has worked primarily with the third-defense at middle linebacker this summer, behind projected starters Alex Anzalone and Chris Board and young linebackers Derrick Barnes and Malcolm Rodriguez.
Rodriguez, a sixth-round pick out of Oklahoma State, has impressed enough this summer that he seems certain of a roster spot, which could leave Davis competing for a job with key special-teamers Anthony Pittman, Josh Woods and Shaun Dion Hamilton.
Davis, who turns 28 in November, said tonight’s game and exhibition contests the next two weeks against the Indianapolis Colts and Pittsburgh Steelers are “huge” for him and his future.
“This could be one of very many opportunities or one of my last opportunities,” he said.
However it plays out, one of the most violent hitters on the Lions roster has found a quiet peace with the game.
“For me, just come in here every day and be in this position that I’m in where, ‘Hey, I’m not the guy,’” Davis said. “I was drafted here, I was a first-round pick, all that stuff. That’s cool, but now we got to come out and play football and you’ve got to really say, ‘Do you want to do this? Do you want to be here?’ And my answer every morning when I wake up with my feet on the ground is, ‘Yes. Yes, please.’ So I come out here every day on the field and I give my best.”