Secret Superstars: Jacksonville Jaguars
Our Secret Superstar series continues with the Jacksonville Jaguars. When compiling this list of potential breakout players, there are teams where we can struggle to find someone who fits the bill, generally because the team struggled and the best players are all relatively established names.
A Jacksonville team with just nine wins over the past three seasons, might have been expected to one of the awkward ones, but it really wasn’t, Ryan Davis was the obvious choice. A sub-package pass rushing specialist for the Jaguars, Davis has fought hard for his opportunities and taken them when they came.
Unranked and undrafted
Davis played both tight end and defensive end in high school, but went unranked by the major recruiting services and ended up at Bethune-Cookman. He soon switched to defensive end full-time and earned a spot in the rotation right from the start, compiling 22 sacks and 49.5 tackles for loss in his four career with the Wildcats. His impact grew each season, culminating in a 12 sack and 21.5 tackle for loss senior campaign, that saw him named the MEAC Defensive Player of the Year. Despite that production, and posting solid measurables for the position at his pro-day, Davis went undrafted. Instead, he joined the Jaguars as a rookie free agent, and spent much of the next two seasons on the practice squad.
Davis got his first chance to impress as a rookie in 2012, getting one pressure from 17 snaps in a Week 5 contest against the Chicago Bears. His next chance came in a seven-week spell to finish the 2013 season, when he was used as a sub-package pass-rushing specialist. Having had to wait a long time for a second opportunity, Davis made sure to seize the day, generating two sacks, and 15 total pressures from just 89 pass rushing snaps. That gave him a 16.5 Pass Rushing Productivity (PRP) score, a higher per-snap productivity rate than the season’s leading edge defender Robert Quinn (15.9); rather unsurprisingly, Davis hasn’t missed a game since.
The PRP is a nice stat, but like all stats it has its limitations. When a player has a limited number of pass rush snaps, a handful of unblocked or garbage time plays could inflate their rate of production, but have negligible value in projecting their future performance. However Davis wasn’t simply being productive, he was making game-winning plays.
With 45 seconds left in the Week 12 contest at the Houston Texans, Davis stole the game-sealing interception. Now he wasn’t in coverage, nor did he do anything to stop the pass being completed, but a freak drop saw Keshawn Martin toss the ball four yards upfield, and Davis swooped to beat the receiver to it with a fine one-handed catch. Two weeks later, in the final play of the return game, Davis beat Duane Brown to the outside for the game-sealing sack, one of only three sacks Brown conceded all year. The Jaguars won just four games in 2013, and Davis made late-impact plays in two of them.
Moving on up
The Jaguars certainly noticed those big plays, and Davis saw his role expand accordingly in 2013. His snap count almost tripled to 310, and while his 2013 production came from the outside, in 2014 the Jaguars moved him around to great effect. He had five sacks and 11 total pressures as an edge rusher, and was almost as disruptive as an interior rusher, with three sacks and 15 total pressures. That ability to line up across the line in passing situations is a huge boon for a creative defensive coordinator.
Regardless of the position he rushed from in 2014, Davis caused problems. He opened the season in fine form, with two sacks and a fumble recovery (from a Chris Clemons sack) against the Philadelphia Eagles. The first of those sacks was a fine play, where Davis was lined up shading the inside of the left tackle, and attacked the outside shoulder of the left guard Evan Mathis. Davis used his speed to turn Mathis and blast past for the sack. It was one of just five sacks allowed by Mathis over the last four seasons.
His best play of the season came in Week 12 against the Indianapolis Colts, with 4:57 left in the second quarter. Davis was lined up wide as the right end, and facing off against Colts’ left tackle Anthony Castonzo. Castonzo slid into a good initial position when Davis attacked the edge from the snap, however strong hand use from Davis stopped Castonzo gaining control, and allowed the pass rusher to turn the corner and close on Andrew Luck. Castonzo wasn’t done, however, he got a good shove on Davis that took him behind the quarterback, but Davis was able to reach out and swat the ball from Luck’s hand.
As a situational pass rush specialist, Davis has yet to start a game, or see anything close to a starters tally of snaps. Yet only seven interior linemen had higher pass rush grades in 2014, and they all saw the field much more often. Davis was likely set for a larger role again in 2015, one which continued to see him move around, but play more inside than outside. However, the injury to Dante Fowler may mean he is pressed into service as an edge defender more than originally intended.
Wherever he lines up he should continue to be handful for the opposition, and a potential breakout star for a Jaguars team in need of game-changing performers.