Davis begins his sixth season in a familiar spot atop the depth chart, but much has changed around him. The Redskins are more talented on offense than they have been since Joe Gibbs was winning Super Bowls a generation ago, and Davis’s potential replacement joined the roster this season. Davis must find his place within the improved group, regain his groove after sitting out all but seven games last season and hold off his rookie understudy. That’s a formidable to-do list during a season in which Davis hopes to prove he deserves the biggest payday of his career.
The good news for Davis is that he still has what it takes to get everything he wants. Davis also has Coach Mike Shanahan behind him, which doesn’t hurt.
During the 2011 season, Shanahan stuck by Davis, who was suspended without pay for the final four games after failing multiple drug tests. After Davis suffered an Achilles’ injury last season, Shanahan brought him back to the Redskins on a one-year contract. Clearly, Shanahan sees something in Davis that he’s not ready to abandon yet.
“Well, it’s not like I forgot the things he can do,” Shanahan told me recently. “There aren’t a lot of guys with his size who can move the way he does. We saw it [in 2011], and we saw it last year before he got hurt. I’m counting on seeing it again.”
With the arrival of quarterback Robert Griffin III last season, offensive play-caller Kyle Shanahan envisioned even bigger things for Davis, whose speed is a matchup nightmare for most linebackers on midrange routes. But just as Griffin and Davis were developing something special, Davis’s season was cut short.
Now, the 6-foot-4, 247-pound Davis is healthy and set for a full season playing with Griffin. Their partnership, running back Alfred Morris said, should help the entire group.
“He was one of Robert’s favorite targets, so now we’ll get a chance to see” how Davis and Griffin grow together, Morris said. “Fred gets separation, he gets open, and he can turn a three-yard gain into a really big play. When you look at where our offense can go, what we think we can do, Fred is going to be a big part of that.”
The Shanahans reveal as much about their strategy as they do their salary information. For the most part, they kept last season’s college option-style attack under wraps until unveiling it during Week 1 against New Orleans.
Opponents have had the offseason to study the zone-read portion of the Redskins’ offense. Kyle Shanahan has added elements in anticipation of changes teams likely will make. Leaning more on Davis could push the offense forward as well as take some of the pressure off of Griffin to produce as much in the running game.
“Because [Davis] was out, it’s tough . . . figuring out exactly how they’re going to use him,” said Coach Chip Kelly, whose Philadelphia Eagles face the Redskins in Monday’s season opener. “He’s a weapon in the passing game. He runs really, really well. It’ll be interesting to see how they incorporate him back in.”
Davis won’t reveal the plan other than to say he likes what he sees. (The Shanahans have taught him well.)
For most of Davis’s tenure with the team, the Redskins had few players on offense who were capable of making big plays. These days, they have a roster full of them, including rookie tight end Jordan Reed.
Privately, Redskins coaches are ecstatic about the athletic third-rounder from Florida, who for now is way down the depth chart.
Davis, however, isn’t concerned about fitting in “because even after my injury, I still believe I can be a playmaker,” he said. “Robert has a lot of choices, which just makes it easier on all of us. If one guy is covered, Robert can go to the next guy and know that the next guy can get it done.
“If [wideout] Pierre [Garcon] is going good, I’m sure we’ll keep going with him. If Alfred is going good running the ball, you know you can just keep going with him. It’s going to come down to who’s in the zone. That’s great.”
Davis’s growth off the field also is impressive. The guy who was prone to giggling during meetings and didn’t apply himself in learning the playbook has evolved into a mature professional, too busy working on his craft to spend time looking over his shoulder.
“For me to get to the next level, and be paid at an elite level, I have to stay focused on what I have to do,” Davis said. “My back is against the wall. That’s when I come out strongest.”
For more by Jason Reid, see washingtonpost.com/reid.