Late in the second quarter of the Washington Commanders’ second preseason game against the Kansas City Chiefs, linebacker Jamin Davis saw a play before it unfolded. The Chiefs tried to deceive the defense by motioning a wide receiver left to right and faking a jet sweep handoff — the exact type of eye candy that, in the past, might have sown just enough doubt in Davis’s mind to make him mistrust his read. He might have hesitated or even taken a step toward the jet sweep, forfeiting the milliseconds and fractions of space that separate success and failure in the NFL.
But this time, Davis recognized the deception and plunged into his gap at the line of scrimmage, where he met running back Isiah Pacheco and dropped him for a minimal gain.
While the preseason is an inherently flawed sample and while he hasn’t made many splash plays, Davis feels as if he has made enough good reads and quick reactions to help shed the frustrations of what he called a “humbling” rookie year. He’s starting to recognize himself on tape again.
“That’s Jamin Davis,” he said of the play against the Chiefs. “You want to get consistently there and make that your foundation, who you are as a player, versus like, ‘Oh, he’s showing flashes or who he can be as a player.’ F--- that. That’s me. . . . That’s literally me. [I’m] just going out there to get more comfortable, and [I’m] playing ball, bro. I didn’t get this far for nothing. That’s just how I’m thinking right now.”
One of the reasons Davis has felt more comfortable is his new role in the defensive scheme. During his rookie year, the first-round pick from Kentucky didn’t have an offseason program and struggled to master the challenging role of middle linebacker, which often caused him to be a step slow and led to a lessened role in the second half of the season.
This offseason, Washington moved Cole Holcomb to the Mike role and Davis off ball, which lightens his responsibilities and should help his brain unlock his body. Davis still possesses remarkable athletic talents. He ran the 40-yard dash in 4.48 seconds, jumped 42 inches vertically and has a 79⅞-inch wingspan, all 95th percentile or higher measurements for a linebacker, according to mockdraftable.com.
If Davis can sustain his faster, freer play, it would provide a big boost to a defense trying to rebound from a disappointing 2021, more specifically in covering opposing tight ends and running backs.
Commanders running back J.D. McKissic, who is sometimes covered by Davis in practice, complimented his performance in camp: “He like a totally different player.”
“He is playing with more certainty and more confidence,” defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio said of Davis. “When he’s locked in mentally and really understands where he belongs, he’s able to come to life. … We are going to need him to play well.”
Davis’s growth and consistency go beyond the box score. On one running play in Washington’s preseason opener against Carolina, Davis met a lead blocker in a gap and forced the back to bounce outside, where a teammate was waiting for an easy tackle. Those subtle plays often go unnoticed but help the defense maintain its structural integrity while avoiding explosive plays.
For a player such as Davis — who was only a one-year starter in college — the lower-stakes reps he took this spring and summer were crucial in his ability to feel the game slowing down. And as he became more consistent, his teammates grew to trust him more.
Last year, Holcomb said, Davis sometimes shied away from being vocal before the snap because he either lacked confidence in his read or because, if he changed the defense, his assignment would change, too, forcing him to think through a new responsibility. This year, Davis has been more self-assured.
“I’m proud of where Jamin’s at,” Holcomb said. “He’s giving me a lot of confidence. I don’t have to worry about him. I don’t have to think about him. He’s out there, and he knows what he’s doing.”
When Commanders Coach Ron Rivera talks about Davis, he often returns to a play from Week 3 last season at the Buffalo Bills. On fourth and two, Davis read running back Devin Singletary running a route out of the backfield and toward the flat. Davis broke on the throw and got to Singletary at about the same time as the ball; he tossed Singletary backward to stop the conversion.
That play, Rivera noted, was in man coverage. If the Commanders let Davis use his natural skills more, he might become the player they dreamed of when they selected him 19th overall.
Davis said he hears the criticisms of fans who think he is a bust or a waste of a first-round pick. He is motivated by them and says, “Just let ’em keep talking crazy.” But he sees himself on tape, and he wants everyone else to see it, too. His play this preseason has given him confidence they will.
“Now,” he said, “it’s like, ‘Okay, let’s go show the world who I really am as a player.’ ”