By all rights, Fred Davis should be in the prime of his career.
Instead, the 27-year-old stood on the edge of the practice field at Redskins Park last week, gloves tucked into the waistband of his burgundy shorts without a helmet or jersey in sight. While music thumped and airplanes droned overhead, he uttered two sentences you don’t expect to hear from a veteran.
“I feel like I’ve got to prove myself again,” Davis said. “Everything I’ve done before doesn’t matter.”
The words were sincere. There wasn’t any need to put on an act, not with three months and change until the regular season. Forget about the soft hands that pulled in 155 catches over the last five seasons or speed not usually associated with a 6-foot-3, 250-pound man. Davis’ ample physical gifts haven’t been the problem.
A few feet away, tackle Trent Williams towered above a scrum of media.
“Fred is always going to be a big, strong, powerful guy,” Williams said. “It doesn’t look like he lost much of a step.”
Each lesson for Davis, though, has come at a steep price. For the third straight year, he’s playing for a long-term contract that, so far, has been as elusive as pre-knee surgery Robert Griffin III in the open field.
In 2011, Davis emerged as the Redskins’ best offensive player until being suspended for the season’s final four games after violating the NFL’s substance abuse policy. He ended up signing the one-year franchise player tender for $5.446 million and bet on another year to rebuild his off-field reputation.
Then came the afternoon last October when Davis tore his left Achilles tendon while running a pass route against the Giants. He had been the leading receiver for an offense reborn behind Griffin and fellow rookie Alfred Morris. One cut forced him to watch the rest of the Redskins’ run to the NFC East title from the sidelines.
Once again, Davis has to bet on an upcoming season, this time to prove his health.
While tight ends scooped up long-term security earlier this offseason — five years and $35.1 million for Jared Cook, four years and $20.4 million for Martellus Bennett, four years and $17.5 million for Delanie Walker, four years and $16 million for Anthony Fasano — similar generosity didn’t come Davis’ way.
An unrestricted free agent, he visited the Bills, then accepted a one-year deal to squeeze under the salary cap and return to the Redskins in March.
How close did he come to leaving Washington?
“Kind of, not really, not close,” said Davis, who feels unfinished business lingers for him with the Redskins. “I was waiting for an offer. … I don’t think it reached the point I needed [with the Bills].”
The Redskins still moved to reinforce the position. Logan Paulsen, who filled in for Davis after the injury, re-signed for three years. And the team used a third-round selection in April’s draft on speedy Florida tight end Jordan Reed. That didn’t bother Davis, never one to lack confidence.
“I know what I’m going to do,” Davis said. “I don’t know what that means for the second tight end.”
He hopes to be cleared to return in time for next month’s minicamp. Last week, he caught passes from Griffin with other rehabbing players at the voluntary workout, moved without hesitation and pegged himself at 90 percent of his usual ability.
There’s still scar tissue to work through. Explosiveness to regain. But cutting doesn’t hurt.
“It’s all mental,” Davis said. “I’m not worried about reinjuring it because that’s when you do reinjure yourself.”
So, Davis’ march to prove himself one cut, one pass route, one workout at a time continues. The goal, once again, seems within reach, the mistakes and pain left in the past.
“This is the kind of thing that happens,” Davis said. “Luckily, I’m still kind of young, so I can bounce back and do the right thing. I still feel good and comfortable out there.”
A few minutes later, he added: “I’m almost there.”
The Redskins hope he’s right.