Jarrad Davis is the most polarizing player on the Detroit Lions roster. The linebacker was the team’s first-round pick in a 2017 draft that could not have aged any worse. While he was not the biggest disappointment from the class heading into 2019—that honor belongs to Teez Tabor, who failed to make the 53-man roster this season—he had certainly not lived up to expectations heading into the third season of his career.
This would be his second season working under linebacker guru Matt Patricia, though, so there was a real chance that things may start to click for him. A lot of players make a large leap in play between year two and year three, especially players with as much athletic talent as Davis.
If things were finally going to click for the young linebacker, and if he was going to prove himself to be a quality linebacker in the NFL, this should have been the year.
Unfortunately, this was not the year. He still was not a good linebacker. He was not even an average one.
Things were not all bad for Davis in 2019, and he did show improvement in one area where he previously struggled. The linebacker was never great as diagnosing plays and reading the game in front of him. It often felt like he was getting too far ahead of himself and just running headfirst into plays without any sense of direction. He often showed patience as a defender last season, though, and it was clearly for the better.
The game seemed to finally slow down for Davis this year. He finally felt comfortable taking a beat to process what was going on in front of him instead of panicking on every snap and feeling like he had to be in an absolute hurry to make a play. This new-found patience was very easy to spot on film.
On this play, Davis sits still for a moment once the ball is snapped, reads the running back making a cutback and then makes a move to meet him in the gap and stuff the run. As simple as this play may seem, these are the plays Davis would often make mistakes on in the past, misreading plays and running himself out of the picture.
Davis does still make some mistakes when he reads plays correctly. He often takes bad angles to get to where he needs to be. He runs himself into the traffic of blockers when he does not need to. At times, he will run himself behind the play. This misreading of angles often allows plays get past him, when he should have stopped them before they got going.
The linebacker’s timing and decision making when he attempts to knife into the backfield has always been a problem. He is always a beat too late, as his newfound patience has almost folded back on itself and caused him to now miss opportunities when they arise. While he would often knife through gaps in the past and just run himself into trouble, now he often just waits a second too long and knifes through behind the play.
Even when Davis finds the right gap and puts himself in position to make a play, he still has problems completing the play. Missed tackles were one of his biggest issues in college, and while he has gotten better over his first three years in the NFL, he has not fixed the issue as much as he should have.
Davis was selected out of Florida as a run defender. The linebacker was a star run stuffer for the Gators, and rarely, if ever, was supposed to drop into coverage. With limited film, there is not really anyway for the Lions to have known how great his coverage instincts were coming out, and they had to bet that his superior athleticism and run instincts would be able to translate over.
So far, they have not. The linebackers struggles in coverage through his career have been well documented. In both zone and man he often gets lost and rarely makes plays. It got to the point where Detroit would often take him off the field on passing downs.
In zone coverage, he often has zero field awareness. He is late dropping back into his zone, and he usually turns his back to the quarterback while running back there. By doing this, he has made it impossible for himself to read the quarterback, or even put himself in between passing lanes. It is hard to make a play on the ball when your back is facing where the ball is coming from.
In man coverage, he has a different problem. Davis often drifts a little bit outside and leaves himself vulnerable to being beaten inside. He is terrible at mirroring the person he is tasked with covering and is always a step behind when his opponent breaks on their route.
Davis has not improved at all in coverage over the past three years. It is his biggest flaw, and it looks like it always will be. The Lions need a middle linebacker who can cover, though, as their failures at linebacker have made them incredibly vulnerable to receiving running backs and tight ends over the years.
This would be excusable if he was a quality defender against the run, but he clearly is not. While he makes the occasional play—and he has improved—the bad still heavily outweighs the good.
Davis is great at firing through gaps at delayed blitzes, but that is not really a role that Detroit could not find someone else to fill. A player like Miles Killebrew or Jalen Reeves-Maybin (both already on the roster) could even fill them.
Detroit has a decision to make this offseason with Davis. They can elect to take his fifth-year option this spring, keeping him under their control for an additional year. If they do, he remains under contract through 2021. If they do not, he will enter a contract year in 2020.
There truly is little reason for Detroit not to take the option. While it’s a guaranteed year of a higher salary, the team has the option to cut him before the start of the 2021 league year with no dead money. But declining the fifth-year option does mean they can move on from the struggling player more amicably.
The team most likely will hold on to Davis for the extra year, but it is hard to see Davis as a long-term member of this team. A player making some sort of large leap in play at this point in his career is rare, and it is starting to look like he will never be the player Detroit expected him to be.