If you were anything like me, you were baffled when the Jets made the trade over the offseason to bring back DeMario Davis. It didn’t seem like Davis could play. He had lost his starting job during his first Jets tenure, and the Browns, one of the least talented teams in football, were giving him away for a first round bust in Calvin Pryor.
Fast forward to now, and Davis is the toast of the Jets fanbase after putting together a high quality season. He has been called a Pro Bowl snub and a priority free agent for this team.
After getting it so wrong about Davis the first time, I decided to look at his 2017 season with an open mind to figure out exactly how much value he has for the Jets. Here are the things I found.
He was an elite run defender based on counting stats.
Davis ranked 6th in the league with a career high 135 tackles. Sometimes tackles do not tell the entire story. As I frequently say, not all tackles are created equal. There is a difference between stuffing somebody for no gain on third and 1 and being dragged down the field 12 yards on a first and 10 before finally pulling down the ball carrier.
PFF has a stat to help us determine impact tackles. It is called a stop. A stop is a tackle on a play that results in failure for the offense. It is defined as a tackle that prevents the offense from gaining 40% of the yardage needed for a first down on a first down play, 60% of the yardage on a second down play, and 100% of the yardage on a third or fourth down play.
By this metric, Davis still fares exceptionally well. He had the second most stops in the league for an inside linebacker with 40. He was making a lot of tackles, and they were important tackles.
A deeper dive shows these numbers aren’t as impressive as they look.
While Davis finished second in the league in stops, he also had more opportunities than anybody else. No inside linebacker played more snaps against the run than Davis’ 447. The Jets defense faced the sixth most rushing attempts in the league, presumably because they were behind so frequently.
PFF also keeps track of the percentage of run snaps where players record stops. Davis recorded a stop on 8.9% of his run snaps. That was 14th best in the league, still good but not nearly the stuff of an elite Pro Bowl worthy player. It was well behind Luke Kuechly’s 11.3%.
The rate matters. The running back who records 1,000 yards by averaging 5 yards on 200 carries is more valuable than the back who records 1,000 yards by averaging 4 yards on 250 carries. It is difficult to argue that Davis’ stats were not padded to some extent by getting so many opportunities to make a play.
We cannot disregard the raw counting stats, though. The fact Davis played 447 snaps helped the Jets. The back who records 1,000 yards by averaging 5 yards on 200 carries is more valuable than the back who records 750 yards by averaging 5 yards on 150 carries.
When you play every down, it shows durability, which is an asset. The reason is simple. If Davis wasn’t out there all the time, a backup would get those snaps. And a backup presumably would be less productive.
If we average out his 2nd place in total stops with his 14th place in stop rate, we could say Davis was maybe the 8th best inside linebacker in the league against the run. Is this scientific? No, but we are just looking for a ballpark figure.
What this says is Davis certainly wasn’t the scrub I made him out to be before the trade, but he wasn’t quite the otherworldly force his counting stats made him out to be.
His coverage stats were sterling.
A staple of Davis’ first tenure with the Jets was watching him get burned in coverage. Watching him defend a wheel route was particularly painful. In 2017, PFF noted that Davis allowed only 342 yards in coverage in 470 snaps. That 0.73 yards allowed per snap was third best in the NFL at inside linebacker.
The career year aspect.
One thing that has to be a concern is that Davis’ production in 2017 was appreciably better than the rest of his career. By the time a player is 29 and six years into his career, you usually do not see enormous growth. A big season with production out of line with the rest of his career is usually an outlier, and that should be considered in any contract negotiation.
The possibility Davis simply had a fluky good years exists, and there is danger he will regress.
While this should be a consideration, I have an alternate theory about his improvement, one that suggests he might be able to sustain this level of play.
Davis might not have improved as much in coverage; he might have just been taken out of situations where his weaknesses could be exposed.
When I looked that those coverage stats in PFF, I went to compare them with past numbers. Then I stumbled onto something interesting. Remember those top notch coverage numbers I told you Davis posted? David Harris ranked fourth in the NFL in that same stat in 2016.
That got me thinking, “Wait a minute. I know David Harris wasn’t an elite cover guy.” I remembered how the Jets used to hide Harris in coverage for lack of a better description, not giving him key matchups.
This led me to do a deep dive of Davis’ season in coverage. I looked at the games where the Jets played against elite receiving tight ends and running backs, the two positions Davis might see in coverage. The games I watched over were against Buffalo (LeSean McCoy) 2X, New England (Rob Gronkowski) 2X, Kansas City (Kareem Hunt and Travis Kelce), Carolina (Christian McCaffrey), New Orleans (Mark Ingram and Alvin Kamara), and Los Angeles (Melvin Gordon).
Figuring out the coverage on any given play can be tricky so I had to guesstimate on some. I included plays that were penalties and two point conversions. Even though they don’t officially count on the stat sheet, they still showed the Jets gameplan defensively.
I found that Davis was left in man coverage on those players only 12.7% of the time he was on the field on passing plays. The Jets didn’t give him the difficult assignments. His partner, Darron Lee, on the other hand, got those assignments 23.3% of the time he was on the field, almost double.
Davis had value against the run, but he was not a factor in coverage for this team. That is a negative. When you can’t put a guy in coverage it means you can’t throw as many looks at the other quarterback, and the other guys on the defense don’t get a rest from the difficult assignments. The one game Lee missed also speaks volumes. It was when the Jets played the Chiefs, a team with a top receiving tight end in Kelce and a top receiving back in Hunt. You might remember that Lee was deactivated in that game for a disciplinary measure. The backup who replaced Lee, Julian Stanford, drew Kelce or Hunt one on one on 9 plays. Davis drew them less than half of that on 4 plays. Imagine that. The Jets were more comfortable putting a backup on elite players than Davis.
This shows that while Davis had value against the run, he was not a factor in coverage for this team. That is a negative. When you can’t put a guy in coverage it means you can’t throw as many looks at the other quarterback, and the other guys on the defense don’t get a rest from the difficult assignments.
The Jets had another role in mind for Davis.
Rather than give Davis the tough coverage assignments, the Jets just had him blitz a lot. His 134 blitzes were second most at the inside linebacker position. His 24 total pressures rated first at the position according to PFF.
It was a pretty simple calculation. If a player can’t cover, just have him rush the passer. Maybe he will generate pressure. I’m not sure the extent to which inside linebackers have pass rushing skills. They tend to not have many moves to beat blocker. When they get home, it tends to be as free runners because of a bust in the blocking scheme.
I think this is a credit to the coaching staff.
Look, when a coaching staff only wins 10 games in two seasons it is going to get criticized, and a lot of the criticism will be fair. But if you are going to criticize these guys when they get something wrong, you have to praise them when they do something right.
To me one the most important aspects of coaching is understanding a player’s skillset. You need to put him in positions that take advantage of the things he does well and keep him out of situations where the things he doesn’t do well get exposed.
If you have followed the Jets over the last decade, you know that from the day Davis was drafted all anybody hoped was that he would develop into a great cover linebacker. He had the speed to theoretically match up with any tight end in the league.
The problem is that coverage isn’t just about raw speed. Davis never developed other essential skills that would turn him into a quality coverage linebacker.
For the first time in his career, a coaching staff stopped trying to make Davis into something he wasn’t. They didn’t ask him to be a cover guy. They simplified his game and prevented him from being exposed to mismatches.
This is my alternative theory to the career year. By making Davis purely a downhill player and not burdening him with difficult coverage assignments, he had to think less. With less on his plate, it was easier to produce.
As a sidenote, I think these things play into why so many free agents fail after signing in new places. The players move to new roles in new systems. They leave the coaches who knew how to use them properly and are given different jobs they might not be able to handle.
Inside Linebackers aren’t valued highly in the NFL.
Part of determining a player’s value is figuring out what his peers make. In the case of Davis’ contemporaries at inside linebacker, the answer is not that much. There are only three inside linebackers in the entire NFL with a $10 million annual salary according to Over the Cap. The tenth highest paid inside linebacker only makes $4.2 million.
Compare that with cornerback where the tenth highest paid player is in the $12 million range. Even at running back, a position the league notoriously values lowly has the tenth highest paid player on a contract over $5 million.
Why does this matter? When you have a free agent, this helps to show how difficult it might be to replace a player. At the inside linebacker position, the salaries show losing Davis might not be catastrophic. Good players can be had for cheap so a replacement might not be difficult to find.
Even that might oversell how difficult it would be to replace Davis. Run stopping inside linebackers can be acquired fairly easily.
A look at the top compilers of stops at the inside linebacker position offers a stunning look at how few resources teams have to use to find them. We will leave out premium linebackers like Luke Kuechly and Bobby Wagner. Those are players who help their defenses in all phases of the game.
Joe Schobert, the only player to record more stops than Davis at the position in 2017, was a 2016 fourth round pick. So was Blake Martinez, who finished fourth. Wesley Woodyard, who finished fifth, was an inexpensive free agent signing in 2014.
Of course, the Jets acquired Davis himself simply by trading a first round bust for whom they no longer had use.
There are no guarantees the Jets could replace Davis so he is worth paying some sort of premium to retain. Still, it is clear it does not require blue chip assets to acquire effective players with a similar skillset. That has to be a consideration.
Heck, the Jets got Davis for virtually nothing a year ago. Why couldn’t they do it again? Is it worth paying a ton of money to replace a player whose skillset is so inexpensive on the market?
So what is Davis worth?
That is a tricky question, but finding an answer to this question was the whole point of this article.
Before we get into that, I am going to address a couple of fallacies I always hear when I write articles like this.
The first goes something like, “Who cares if the Jets overpay a little? They have so much cap space it won’t matter. Better to overpay than lose a good player.”
You don’t even need a long memory to figure out the flaw in that one. All you need to do is think back three years. This time in 2015, the Jets were swimming in cap space. Then they spent it all within a span of weeks and still had not addressed all of their weaknesses. Every dollar you spend on one player is a dollar you can’t spend on other needs. That means you’d better spend every dollar efficiently.
That cap space will not last forever. The Jets are going to be buyers in free agency, and money tied up in overpays is going to hurt the team. It’s that simple.
The second fallacy goes something like, “What happens if they can’t find a linebacker as good as Davis to replace him? Better to play it safe and overpay.”
The problem with this is there is no law that says the money earmarked for Davis has to go to another linebacker. Maybe you downgrade at linebacker but spend the remaining funds to add a player a different position who brings more value than the value lost by letting Davis go.
Now let’s figure out a dollar amount for Davis. This is more art than science.
There are factors here that drive his value up and down. Driving his value up is the production he had in 2017. Driving his value down is the inexpensiveness of his skillset on the market. Also driving down his value is the fact is was a career year. I have my theory that his improvement might be sustainable, but that is only a theory. You do have to hedge for the possibility it was a fluke.
I think for a player with one year of this sort of production, a deal between $4 million and $5 million per year sounds fair. It would put Davis in the top ten at his position. That is good money for one big year. But it isn’t franchise altering money. I think it is a reasonable risk.
I think any deal that exceeds $5 million annually gets into bad contract territory. The extent to which the contract would be bad increases with each additional dollar.