The New York Jets added Jarrad Davis to boost the linebacker room, but is he capable of starting in an every-down role?
The New York Jets kicked off their 2021 free agency spending spree by signing former Detroit Lions linebacker Jarrad Davis, a Florida product who was the 21st overall pick in the first round of the 2017 NFL draft.
Linebacker was a prime need for the Jets entering the offseason. Making the switch to Robert Saleh and Jeff Ulbrich‘s 4-3 defense, they needed to find a starter to place next to C.J. Mosley and a third linebacker who could rotate in whenever the team places a three-linebacker look on the field.
Which role will Davis fill? Which role should he fill? Let’s dig into his strengths and weaknesses.
Much-improved 2020 season
Davis (6-foot-1, 245 pounds) had a rough first three seasons as a starter for the Lions (more on that later). In 2020, Detroit moved Davis into a limited role that placed him on the field for only 23.5 snaps per game, or about 34% of the Lions’ defensive snaps on average.
That switch proved to be a productive one for Davis. He allowed a career-low 7.9 yards per reception, posted a career-high 72.1 coverage grade at Pro Football Focus, and all-in-all, mustered up an overall PFF grade of 62.2 that was also a career-high and placed him at the 70th percentile among qualified linebackers. Davis gave up a career-low 5.4 yards after the catch per reception and committed zero penalties, his first season with fewer than four penalties.
One thing that Davis has always done well throughout his career is get after the quarterback. He has 68 pressures on 301 rush opportunities, a blistering rate of 22.6% that is significantly higher than the 2020 linebacker average of 14.3%.
With 10.5 sacks and 23 quarterback hits in his 55 career games, Davis has posted about 3.1 sacks and 6.7 quarterback hits per 16 games. He had a six-sack season back in 2018.
Davis has a great feel for punching the ball loose. He has forced seven fumbles over 305 career tackles, a rate of 2.3%. That ranks third-best among linebackers with at least 300 tackles since 2017, trailing only Jamie Collins (2.5%) and Lavonte David (2.6%).
Track record as a starter
Davis started every game he appeared in for the Lions over his first three seasons, and he generally did not play well. Here are some of his most noticeably poor numbers from 2017-19 and where they ranked among linebackers with at least 500 snaps.
- 2019: 38.6 overall PFF grade (worst among LB with 500+ snaps), 15.4 yards per reception allowed (worst)
- 2018: 51.0 overall PFF grade (54th of 61), 17 missed tackles (6th-most)
- 2017: 52.8 overall PFF grade (55th of 65), 19 missed tackles (3rd-most)
Missed tackles have been a problem for Davis throughout his career. With 57 career missed tackles against 301 career defensive tackles, Davis has a missed tackle rate of 15.7% that stomps the 2020 positional average of 10.7%. He did not improve in this area in 2020, actually getting worse as he missed 10 tackles against 42 defensive tackles for a gruesome 19.2% miss rate. That ranked third-worst among qualified linebackers.
Davis does not have a very good resume against the run with a composite career run defense grade of 50.5 at PFF (2020 LB average: 55.3). He has not ranked in the top half of PFF’s run defense grade since his 2017 rookie season. His career missed tackle rate against the run is 13.9%, beating the 2020 linebacker average of 10.0%.
Davis did not produce well in coverage prior to the 2020 season.
Keep the sample sizes in mind here – just 123 coverage snaps in 2020 versus 1,201 from 2017-19.
Davis is 26 years old and will turn 27 in November, placing him in the heart of his prime.
In terms of durability, Davis has played in 55 out of 64 possible games in his career, an 85.9% rate and an average of 13.8 games per season.
Davis missed two games in 2020, one due to COVID-19 and one the following week with a knee injury.
In 2019, Davis missed five games. He missed the first two games of the season with an ankle injury and the final three games with another ankle injury.
Davis had a 16-for-16 year in 2018. In his 2017 rookie season, he missed two games with a concussion.
Davis averaged 23.5 snaps per game for the Lions in 2020, playing about 34% of the team’s defensive snaps in his average game. He participated in as few as 17% of the plays and as many as 63%. That was a huge slice compared to 2019 when he played about 90% of the snaps in his average game and logged 65.4 snaps per contest.
The playing time that Davis received in 2020 makes him a perfect fit to fill the No. 3 linebacker role in the Jets defense. Robert Saleh and Jeff Ulbrich’s 2020 defenses gave a very similar amount of playing time to their third linebackers. In San Francisco, Azeez Al-Shaair played 29% of the snaps, while in Atlanta, Mykal Walker played 36% of the snaps. Walker played anywhere from 15% to 56% of the snaps in the majority of his games – extremely similar to Davis’ range of 17% to 63%.
Davis is capable of occasionally kicking out to the edge, playing outside linebacker (on the line of scrimmage) on 8.5% of his snaps over the past two seasons. He has also dabbled in slot cornerback (2.1%) and outside cornerback (1.9%).
Typically, Davis would play either the MIKE (middle) or SAM (strong-side) linebacker spot when he subbed in for the Lions in 2020. He rarely lined up on the weak side of the formation, but he did play at WILL occasionally.
Detroit began using Davis more frequently on special teams in 2020 due to his diminished defensive role, and he had some success. Davis played 40 snaps for the kickoff coverage team – a unit he had never been a part of in the NFL (not even in the preseason) – and he made four tackles without missing any. Davis also rushed for the punt return and field goal block units.
Target prevention was a key aspect of Davis’ improved coverage in 2020. He was credited with a target in his direction once every 8.4 snaps in coverage, a rate that ranked at the 78th percentile among linebackers with at least 100 cover snaps.
Here, Davis shows off an example of how linebackers can prevent targets in their direction. As the MIKE linebacker in a 4-3 under look, Davis jumps the tight end’s out-breaking route before the tight end even makes his outside break, prompting Kirk Cousins to hold the ball and take a sack from Romeo Okwara.
Playing 3-4 WILL (a rare weak-side rep), Davis stays disciplined in his hook/curl zone on this play, showing good spatial awareness as he avoids any compulsive movements and understands where the threats are. He mirrors Watson’s eyes and movements, sliding with him toward the sideline and blocking the throwing lane for two potential targets in the end zone. As Watson scrambles, Davis makes the right decision to vacate his zone and pursue, pressuring Watson into throwing the ball away.
This next play is a really nice fundamentally-sound rep from Davis and a preview of a matchup that Jets fans could see twice in 2021 if both players are healthy.