'It just feels right': Jarrad Davis returns to Lions with new mindset, balance
Allen Park – Jarrad Davis has only been gone a year, but listening to him talk after re-signing with the Detroit Lions on Friday, you quickly realize he feels like a new man.
Not that anyone had complaints about the type of person Davis was during the four years he spent with the franchise after being selected in the first round of the 2017 NFL draft. Sure, the on-field performance often fell short of expectations, but it was never from a lack of effort. Davis was a coach’s dream Monday through Saturday, fully devoting his life to being the best player and best teammate he could be.
But when Davis departed in free agency, signing a one-year deal with the New York Jets last offseason, he admitted he had strongly considered retirement instead of continuing his career. It wasn’t because of performance, or injury, he simply wasn’t happy. By being all about football, all the time, he came to the realization he had sacrificed balance. He loved the sport so much he had allowed it to consume him, to define him.
Davis left Detroit mature and thoughtful, but during his year away he dug deeper and found inner peace, all while managing to maintain the work ethic and passion that had become his calling cards at both the University of Florida and in Detroit.
“Football has been my No. 1 for so long,” Davis said. “I started playing this game when I was six years old, and I loved it ever since I stepped on the field. And finding something to challenge me just as much as football does, if not even a little bit more, that is honestly a little bit more fulfilling, makes football a lot easier.
"That's my spirituality, that's my friendships, my relationships, my wife and my child. Different things like that just to help me understand this life has more things in it than football, and that makes the weight a lot lighter.”
More: Mel Kiper: No. 2 too high for Malik Willis, but could see QB going in top 10
Davis comes back to Detroit not only with a renewed mindset, but wildly different expectations. As a first-round pick, he was immediately thrust into a starting role and expected to be a star. But the person who drafted him is long gone, as are all the coaches who worked with him and most of the players who shared the locker room.
No one is counting on Davis to start in 2022, and he’s going to have to beat out several contenders to even see the field on defense.
And that’s perfectly fine with him.
“Honestly, my job every day is to go out there and, as an individual, is to go out there and work as hard as I can every single day,” Davis said. “It doesn't matter who sees me, it doesn't matter what they think about me, it doesn't matter what they say, my job is to go out and put my best foot forward and just continue to take any and every step I can to get better. Any baby step, I'll take it. I love those. That's how I came up.
“Go back and look at my history,” Davis continued. “I wasn't a four-year starter in high school, I wasn't a four-year starter in college. My junior year, before I got a chance to really play and show what I was made of at Florida, I was on the bench. There are so many things I've had to overcome and this is just one more thing in my life and it excites me because I've told people plenty of times, it's not always easy to be on the top of the mountain.
"It's not always easy. For me, my whole entire life, I've loved the hunt, I've loved the climb. I appreciate that. I appreciate how much it brings the best out of me. I appreciate how much it pushes me to really grow and develop. So I'm excited for any opportunity and shot I can get.”
Lions coach Dan Campbell never wanted to see Davis leave. Shortly after he was hired by the franchise last offseason, Campbell raved about Davis in multiple interviews. When the coach turned on the film to study the team he was inheriting, he saw untapped potential in the linebacker.
"Look, I can't tell you what we're going to do in free agency, but when you state it like that, Jarrad Davis, there's something about that guy, man," Campbell told the Detroit News last February. "Things I hear about the way he was coached, and just knowing the ability and aggressiveness, he intrigues me. He pops off the tape and you feel like, man, can we help this guy? Can we make this guy a better player?"
But less than two months later, Davis accepted a one-year deal with the Jets for $5.5 million guaranteed. It was too rich a cost for Detroit to match.
In New York, Davis struggled to live up to that contract. He suffered an ankle injury in the preseason, which sidelined him the first eight games. He returned to start five of the final nine, tallying just 25 tackles and none for a loss.
In many ways, those struggles were a continuation from the end of his initial run in Detroit. In 2019, an ankle injury sidelined Davis twice, limiting him to 11 games and prohibiting him from building off his best season, when he tallied 100 tackles, 10 behind the line, 6.0 sacks, five pass defenses and a forced fumble in 2018.
The Lions declined the fifth-year option on Davis' rookie contract ahead of the 2020 campaign and shifted him to a backup role, in favor of free-agent addition Jamie Collins and 2019 second-round draft pick Jahlani Tavai, who were both viewed as better schematic fits for former coach Matt Patricia defense.
Davis would finish that year playing just 330 defense snaps, a little more than a third of his workload from his stellar 2018 season, tallying 46 tackles and a half sack.
Who knows if the next chapter in Davis’ story will involve the rediscovery of that 2018 version. He’s just thankful he’s getting another opportunity to prove himself in a place he came to realize was his home away from home.
“Definitely the familiarity, knowing that this is the place that pretty much raised me,” Davis said about the draw of coming back to Detroit. “And knowing how much I enjoyed it. Especially getting the chance to see and really understand how much I missed it when I was gone, too.
"Every time wasn't always a good time, but I'm telling you, ball here is fun. I love playing in that stadium, I love being around that city, I love seeing Michigan summers. Winters, I'm still learning, still trying to grow on me, but I enjoy this place, I really do.
“...Just thinking about being here again, it just feels right more than anything."