Allen Park — It’s one of the oldest debates in the field of psychology: nature versus nurture. And it’s one that Jim Caldwell, the Lions’ head coach, keeps coming back to when someone questions the leap of faith his team is making on the field this season.
The Lions’ settling on Jarrad Davis with their first-round draft pick this spring wasn’t exactly a surprise. Neither was the decision to immediately entrust him with the starter’s role at middle linebacker. But it is a calculated risk, even more so than relying on rookie Taylor Decker as the team’s starting left tackle a year ago.
And as Detroit gets ready to kick off the regular season Sunday against Arizona, all eyes will be on Davis to see if he’s ready to be the quarterback of the Lions’ defense.
“It’s a new stage, a new level,” the 21-year-old rookie said. “But I’m excited, man. I’m excited to play and have everything count and get the exact feel of what it’s gonna be like. … I’m excited to go out and put what we’ve got on the line.”
What they’ve got, they think, is a playoff-caliber roster, one that finished 9-7 a year ago and nearly won the NFC North despite an obvious hole in the middle of Teryl Austin’s defense. The Lions’ linebacker corps got abused by opposing quarterbacks, and if you don’t think they lacked playmakers there, consider this: Austin got no sacks, no interceptions and no forced fumbles from that position group in 2016.
Davis’ arrival should help change that this year. A two-year starter at Florida, he has the physical tools to be a difference-maker in the pros — an explosive hitter with terrific lateral quickness and closing speed. And after taking every first-team rep from spring practice through training camp, he has a full grasp of Austin’s defensive scheme, according to coaches and teammates alike.
But it’s some of the rookie’s other qualities — from his meticulous preparation to his comfort level in calling the shots for an NFL defense — that has Caldwell talking about his “innate leadership abilities” as he hands him the keys to the Ford family’s car.
“Everybody’s a little bit different,” Caldwell said. “But this guy, I think was born with them. And he displays that on a daily basis. … This is natural for him. It doesn’t matter who it is that he’s talking with, his voice inflection is still the same. And he still is able to get guys lined up, make the calls that he needs to without being bashful.”
Now then, Caldwell is quick to add this “doesn’t mean he’s going to set the world on fire right from day one.” And as good as Davis has looked on the practice field, or even in his first preseason tests against the Colts and Jets, there have been times where Davis looked like a student driver.
“It’s efficiency,” he said. “Guys are making the right moves, they’re making the right cuts at the right second, and every move you make is vital. If I don’t make the right moves, then I’m gonna be behind.”
Detroit News sportswriters Bob Wojnowski, John Niyo and Justin Rogers take a look at the upcoming season for the Detroit Lions. Detroit News
And so, in turn, will the rest of the defense, as we saw in that third preseason game against New England, when Tom Brady picked apart the Lions — and Davis in particular, early on — while scoring 24 points in four first-half possessions for the Patriots.
Yet Davis insists that was an important moment, “just to be able to play against him and really see exactly how the best do it. And I learned a whole lot. A whole lot. So that’s one game I look at that I can go back and say, ‘This is what went wrong, this is how I need to fix it and this is how I need to work at it every day to make sure it doesn’t happen again.’”
Chance are, it will, as even Caldwell admits. Decker certainly had some rough moments in an impressive debut season, and Davis figures to be no different, especially with five of the Lions’ first eight games against top-10 offenses from a year ago.
Austin said he’ll define the rookie’s success by the growth he shows, and whether he looks like a better player in January than he does now.
“If he does that, we’re going to have a pretty good year on defense,” Austin said. “He’s got a chance to be a really good player. If he’s good in Week 1 and better in Week 16, we’re going to be all right.”
And if he isn’t? Well, that’s a question the Lions really aren’t concerning, mostly because they’re convinced he will be good, without a whole lot of nurturing.
“He’s one of those guys that I just think that you’re going to see improvement every single day,” Caldwell said. “That’s the way he constructs his life. He’s a hard worker. He’s extremely serious about what he’s doing.”
That goes for everything, from understanding the intricacies of Austin’s playbook to setting — and sticking to — a detailed daily schedule. And it’s not just the coaches that have taken notice.
Ask cornerback Darius Slay to identify some of the team’s leaders and he’ll quickly mention the obvious ones on the defensive side, starting with veterans Glover Quin and Haloti Ngata.
“But the thing that’s crazy is one of the biggest leaders on the team is Jarrad Davis,” he adds. “He’s loud, he communicates, he’s confident in what he does. And it makes us feel good. He’s very, very confident. You can hear him.”
That last part doesn’t necessarily surprise Slay, who grew up an hour away from Davis in southern Georgia. Where they’re from, Slay says, “we’re all vocal.” But whereas Slay is the garrulous voice fronting the Lions’ defensive backfield, with Davis, “he’s talking like he means something,” Slay laughs.
“And when he steps between them lines, he’s a whole ‘nother man. That’s what we like. We like a linebacker that’s just mean and ready to go.”
Ready or not, the Lions will find out how far they can go with a rookie at the wheel.
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