Evaluating the Jesse Davis Signing In Context

Photo Credit: Sam Navarro-USA TODAY Sports

Miami Dolphins fans hate new Minnesota Vikings offensive lineman Jesse Davis. The former Dolphin earned that ire, giving up eight sacks as a tackle last year. So what do the Vikings see in him? They signed Davis to a $3 million deal, which isn’t a blockbuster, but it does indicate some intention to start him. Meanwhile, Davis graded out as one of PFF’s worst linemen over the last handful of years. Sure, he has played significant snaps at guard and tackle on both sides, but who cares about that if he’s bad? How can the Vikings be so far off popular opinion?

What Gives?

It’s not impossible for the Vikings to simply be wrong. Perhaps offensive line coach Chris Kuper, who coached Davis in Miami in 2017 and 2018, simply remembers his former player too fondly. Perhaps it’s a money issue — the Vikings are dealing with a pretty tight salary cap, after all. If you’re only interested in surface-level analysis, you would probably stop there. Maybe you could throw in a dig at Kirk Cousins‘ $31.4 million cap hit and move on.

But you clicked on an article about evaluating in context, so I’ll go ahead and guess that you’re looking for a deeper explanation than anyone can provide in a tweet or two. After all, if the Vikings agreed with public opinion that Jesse Davis shouldn’t start in the NFL, why pay him NFL starting money, especially in a cap-strapped world? There must be something they are considering that surface-level analysis doesn’t.

The answer is probably that the Vikings intend to play Davis at right guard. Looking through some of his most embarrassing moments, they almost exclusively come at the edges.

To understand this, we have to be willing to throw out information. It’s difficult to forget something on purpose. (Ever had a movie or TV show spoiled and try to forget what you learned?) But it is a necessary skill, especially in player evaluation, to set one thing aside so you can fully focus on another. If the Vikings have no intention to play Davis at tackle, why do we care how he did there?

If we didn’t have ample tape of Davis at right guard, we could use his tape at tackle and do some educated guessing. But we don’t have to do that, as Davis played the entire 2018 season and half of the 2020 season at right guard. Since the report is that Davis will be the frontrunner to start at guard, let’s just look at him there. Unfortunately, PFF doesn’t provide a way to split their left tackle grades from their right guard grades. We’ll have to look at the tape ourselves.

Let’s pretend that Davis only ever played these right guard games. Let’s forget the left tackle games on purpose, then fold them back in later if we need to.

You are now entering the pretend zone where Jesse Davis only played right guard.

For the last several years, the Vikings have had to contend with a ton of stunts and twists. The Vikings are also very bad at contending with stunts and twists. Opponents know this, so they just keep coming. Davis’ eyes are very active. Refreshingly, at guard, he shows a propensity to pick these stunts up. It’s nice to see someone with a little more awareness than Oli Udoh.

Davis is always very aware of his surroundings and how they change. In a 2020 game against the New York Jets (PFF’s least favorite game of his at right guard for that year), he had to read and contend with a lot of different twisting, exotic blitzes. He was rarely caught off guard. Part of defending stunts is not getting sucked too far in. Here’s Dakota Dozier making that exact mistake. The tackle draws him well into Riley Reiff‘s way, leaving a great gap for the end to rush through. In the clip above, Davis doesn’t take that bait. He lets the play come to him.

Sometimes Davis can get a little too wrapped up in the possibility of a trick coming from the defensive line. Here he gets himself in trouble by leaving his eyes on his teammate’s man for too long. The man right in front of him is able to bat the ball down without Davis punishing him. Linemen are coached to “punish jumpers,” and Quinnen Williams goes unpunished here.

Still, it’s a good thing more often than a bad one. Here, Davis’ reactive style helps him defeat Harvey Langi, who tries to lure Davis inside then cross to the outside. Davis is able to build a stable base, then explode outside when Langi tries to play his hand.

This reactive style requires a certain athleticism, which Davis has in spades. He has the explosiveness and agility required to thrive in a wide zone-blocking system.

Miami didn’t really run this type of system, instead opting for more power and duo runs. That’s a more straight-up style, and there might be some reason for it with Davis. In a zone scheme, linemen have to fire out of their stances very aggressively. Davis seems much more inclined to set up a stable base and let the play come to him. Here, watch Davis’ first step. It doesn’t commit as far laterally as his teammates’ and that allows Folorunso Fatukasi into the backfield.

The Vikings will have to drill different starting footwork into Davis and get him to play more aggressively. In addition to his athleticism, we do have some proof of concept of his ability to work in space. For power or counter runs, the Dolphins liked to pull Davis and have him engage someone in space. He didn’t have much problem with this type of assignment.

Despite all of his athleticism and his experience, Davis just is not that aggressive. As an offensive lineman, you will get some opportunities to get mean and throw someone onto the turf. Davis would much rather let the play come to him. That’s wise against things like stunts, but it’s a missed opportunity in some cases.

On a drive block like that, Davis had Lawrence Guy exactly where he wanted him. He had won the hand battle and was driving Guy off the ball. But Davis couldn’t finish it, and Guy shed the block to earn the run stop. For a counterexample, here’s Christian Darrisaw, who quickly overcame his finishing issues from college.

Football is a physical game, and Jesse Davis simply isn’t physical enough to impose his will on his opponents. Still, that’s a strong upgrade from what the Vikings have dealt with recently at the position. A little mean streak might improve Davis, but he still has played guard at an NFL level. Considering how difficult he is to trick, he should have a leg up on Oli Udoh. Nobody knows where Wyatt Davis‘ development is. To boot, Jesse Davis has some discipline — he hasn’t committed a penalty in a start at right guard since 2018.

You are now exiting the pretend zone where Jesse Davis only played right guard.

Now let’s fold what we learned into a tackle context. It makes some sense that a more passive player would struggle on the edge. Edge rushers love to toy with tackles who are too busy thinking to punch them in the mouth. Looking back at some of those ugly tackle losses at the top of the article, we can see Davis’ same habits cropping up. He’s late out of his stance, he’s unwilling to aggressively chase a speed rusher upfield, and sometimes he just lets too much come to him.

That is to say, it may not be wise to pencil in Jesse Davis as the team’s swing tackle. It’s always nice if one player can fill another position in an emergency, but it would have to be just that: an emergency. If right guard is truly that much better for Davis, the Vikings might think about bringing in Rashod Hill or someone similar before slotting him into that position by default.

Davis is only on a one-year deal. If he plays well, there’s nothing stopping the Vikings from committing to more. But for now, this is a rental to paper over the position while a younger player develops. Perhaps that player will be a selection in the 2022 draft, or maybe it’s Wyatt Davis. With a little luck, a wide-zone could make even better use of his athleticism and maybe get more out of him than Miami could after Kuper left. Either way, Davis seems cerebral and athletic enough to hold down the fort until his heir apparent is ready, whenever that is.

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