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Kentucky LB Jamin Davis taken by Washington Football Team at No. 19 in draft

Linebacker Jamin Davis started just 11 of his 36 games at Kentucky but impressed Coach Ron Rivera with his versatility. "He’s what you look for in a football player," said Rivera. (Tony Dejak/AP)

Despite a surprising slide by a pair of quarterbacks, the Washington Football Team stayed at No. 19 and turned to the position Coach Ron Rivera knows best. Washington selected linebacker Jamin Davis, a one-year starter out of Kentucky whose athleticism and range made him one of the fastest-rising prospects ahead of the 2021 draft.

The selection gives Washington another top pick for its defensive front, to go with its all-first-round line. More significant, it fills a void on a unit that ranked second in yards allowed last season but was often inconsistent against the run and was often burned by big plays.

“He fits our culture,” Rivera said of Davis. “He has a tremendous background — the kind of background I look for — [and is a] very smart, intelligent young man, plays the game at the right tempo. … He has position flex — he can play all of our linebacker positions, he has that kind of athletic ability.

“He’s what you look for in a football player.”

Jamin Davis began last season off the NFL's radar. He played himself into the first round.

At 6-foot-3 and 234 pounds, Davis impressed at his pro day in late March when he ran the 40-yard dash in unofficial times of 4.37 seconds and 4.41 seconds, recorded a 42-inch vertical jump and had an 11-foot broad jump. Though he started only 11 of his 36 games at Kentucky after redshirting as a freshman and serving primarily as a special-teamer and reserve linebacker in 2018-19, his standout 2020 season catapulted him onto the NFL’s radar.

In our early draft meetings, his name came up,” Washington General Manager Martin Mayhew said. “I hadn’t done a whole lot of work on them then, but our [scouts] in that area spoke very highly of him. I started digging into him, and you just saw that the guy shows up on tape the way Coach [Rivera] said. His range, he has some knock-back to him, he plays very smart. ... He loves football. He loves the process. He loves to work at it. He loves that grind. That’s the kind of player that we really want to build with here.”

In 10 games last season, Davis totaled 102 tackles, 1.5 sacks, a forced fumble and fumble recovery, and three interceptions, one of which he returned 85 yards for a touchdown. Despite his limited time as a starter, Davis decided to declare for the draft believing he showed enough to entice NFL teams. He said the decision was one of his most difficult.

“That was one of the things I learned from my mom, was to always take a bet on myself and never let anybody try to discourage me,” Davis said. " … I really took a bet on myself.”

Although Davis went overlooked for national accolades, his game tape served as an even more impressive résumé in a year when players’ on-field production probably counted even more in the absence of the NFL scouting combine and many postseason all-star games.

Rivera said Davis “sticks out on tape,” and cited his pick-six against Tennessee as proof.

“Watch how he takes his angle on his drop, retreats and then rolls back inside underneath to make the interception,” Rivera said. “I mean, that’s a very natural football player right there. A lot of guys that don’t get it, don’t understand it, don’t do that type of technique, don’t play that way. And that was such a natural feel for him.”

But even more intriguing to Rivera is Davis’s potential for more growth in Jack Del Rio’s defense.

“If you watch the way he started the season and watch the progression and growth, you see it," Rivera said. “You feel comfortable knowing that this kid is still growing. He hasn’t even come close to his ceiling, in my opinion.”

Davis’s parents are both army veterans, and Rivera hasn’t hidden his affinity for signing players with military backgrounds like himself. Coupled with Davis’s rise from a reserve in a crowded linebackers room at Kentucky, to a key starter on its defense, he quickly became a clear match for Rivera and the “culture” he has said he’s trying to create in Washington.

His versatility was as much a factor.

With speed, size and instinctive cover skills, Davis has the skill set to play several roles on Washington’s defense, just as Rivera has sought in many of the players the team has drafted and signed over the past year.

“There are several guys that we really liked because of their athleticism [and] their abilities, but this guy had the most position flex of any of them,” Rivera said. “And that’s important to me because I believe a guy that can play all your linebacker positions will learn quickly, will develop quickly, will understand quickly and can help others around him.”

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Davis was ranked by many analysts as one of the top four linebackers among a deep group, with Penn State’s Micah Parsons (No. 12 to the Dallas Cowboys), Notre Dame’s Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah and Tulsa’s Zaven Collins (No. 16 to the Arizona Cardinals). For Washington, Davis was the team’s top remaining defender on its board by the it was up at No. 19.

Washington declined to trade up, despite the surprising fall of former Ohio State quarterback Justin Fields, who went to the Chicago Bears at No. 11 after a trade, and former Alabama quarterback Mac Jones, who went to New England at No. 15.

“Really, up until our pick it went pretty much the way we thought it would go,” Mayhew said. “We got a few calls, but we didn’t think seriously about making any move. We felt very comfortable there.”

Washington signed veteran quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick to a one-year deal in March, and it could still draft another quarterback later in the draft to develop and compete with Kyle Allen and Taylor Heinicke.

But its priority Thursday was the long term — and the fit.

“We just felt — looking at where we are right now, with what we’re doing — to sit and be patient,” Rivera said. “We felt strongly about it. We really did. This isn’t just about trying to put a piece — we have a chance to put pieces in place. I believe that’s a better direction for us right now.”

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