ASHBURN — When Jamin Davis refers back to his rough rookie year with the Washington Commanders, he’s often quick to note the parallels to his time at the University of Kentucky. For the Wildcats, the linebacker spent two seasons — not counting his redshirt year — riding the bench as a backup and special teams player.
Then, as a junior, things for Davis finally clicked: He started 10 games, racked up more than 100 tackles and put together a campaign that made him one of the fastest risers in the 2021 draft.
In hindsight, there was nothing fast about it.
“Coming in, you’re not thrown into the fire right away,” Davis said. “You just trust the process.”
The Kentucky experience has given Davis some perspective as he gears up to have more of an impact in his second season with the Commanders. Left unsaid: The Commanders might not be able to wait on the 23-year-old’s development much longer if he doesn’t start to make significant strides this coming fall.
The realities of the NFL are that prospects usually aren’t given the same amount of runway to develop as they are in college. There’s a demand to produce right away, especially for first-round picks like Davis.
Already, just over a year into Davis’ short career, Washington’s coaches have done a lot to try to accelerate that process. For example, Davis’ role has changed so that he’s now at outside linebacker rather than inside — a switch that better suits the player’s skillset, according to coach Ron Rivera.
So far, so good. Davis has had a quieter camp in terms of making splash plays, but Rivera said the Commanders “are pleased” with his development.
“The biggest thing is just learning,” Rivera said. “You know, it’s hard when you are used to playing a specific way, a certain way, and then you come in and now it’s completely a whole new ball game. It really truly is. It’s a different type of learning. It’s a different type of playing. This game is vastly different from the college game.
“And with him, it’s just a matter of getting opportunities and picking it up. He continues to get reps and continues to do well.”
Rivera said Davis has a better grasp of the ins and outs of the defense and is making the correct reads and drops in coverage.
He praised Davis’ vision in the passing game, noting the linebacker also has the ability to “run and burst.”
Even as a rookie, Davis flashed in that area — his top highlight of the year was when he snuffed out a swing pass on fourth-and-1 in Week 3 against the Buffalo Bills and crushed the running back in the process.
But, too often last season, Davis looked lost. His 11 missed tackles ranked third on the team, despite playing notably fewer snaps than the two players ahead of him.
According to Pro Football Focus, the linebacker was targeted 41 times in coverage and allowed 36 receptions. Each catch gained an average of 8.4 yards.
But Davis said the game this summer has noticeably slowed down for him. He feels more like himself, he says, like the player who broke out at Kentucky.
“Ten times more comfortable,” he says.
The big question is just how much of Davis’ improvement will translate into playing time.
In camp, the 23-year-old has consistently run with the starters and next to linebacker Cole Holcomb. But in certain packages — such as when Washington deploys five defensive linemen — Washington coaches have turned to veteran David Mayo to pair with Holcomb rather than Davis. Washington commonly deployed five-man fronts last season, too.
Last season, Davis’ playing time fluctuated. In all, he had only four games in which he played more than 70% of the defense’s snaps. Some weeks, his snap percentage dipped below 50.
Will Davis playing outside linebacker allow him to be on the field more?
“Whether you’re inside or outside, we need linebackers on the field,” linebackers coach Steve Russ said in June. “Outside, inside, we’re going to make sure that the guys we feel comfortable with are out there, and also make sure what we have there suits stopping what the offense is trying to do.”
Davis feels comfortable now. His playing time will be telling whether the coaching staff is comfortable with Davis.
“When it’s your time,” Davis said, “you step up and make plays.”