JACKSONVILLE, Fla. -- Defensive end Ryan Davis was a bit of a misfit when he entered the NFL in 2012.
He was a good player at Bethune-Cookman College, winning MEAC Defensive Player of the Year honors as a senior in 2011, but he had that label that prospects hate: tweener. NFL teams weren’t sure if he projected as a defensive end or an outside linebacker, but they were sure that he wasn’t big enough to move inside.
The Jacksonville Jaguars took a chance on Davis, signing him after he went undrafted, and in three years he has used the fact that he didn’t fit at one position to carve out a role as a pass-rushing specialist. He has become one of the defense’s better players, and if he can duplicate the success he had in 2014 he might be able to secure the thing of which undrafted players dream: a multi-year contract.
"Coming out of college I was an outside linebacker/D-end and they didn’t know where I would fit," Davis said. "Either I wasn’t fast enough or big enough or strong enough, all that kind of stuff they go over. But I am kind of proud of the role I carved out."
According to ESPN Stats & Information, Davis recorded 6.5 sacks, forced two fumbles, recovered two others, and batted down two passes on just 289 snaps in 2014. That’s 12.5 impact plays despite averaging 18 snaps per game -- one impact play for every 23 snaps. That’s an even better rate than Houston defensive end J.J. Watt, who averaged one impact play every 25 snaps (39.5 impact plays on 1,001 snaps).
Davis did it while playing multiple spots, too. He has lined up outside as a Leo, which is what the Jaguars call their pass-rushing defensive end, as well as lining up inside on third downs. He has been surprisingly effective there despite his size limitation (6-foot-2, 260 pounds), but that’s where he’s helped by being a tweener.
He’s giving up 50 pounds to players, but he’s beating them with his quickness, athleticism, and work with his hands.
"This is not a knock against guards, but you get in there, it’s a little bit tighter quarters," defensive coordinator Bob Babich said. "If you’ve got some quick movement, you can get by there a little quicker. Tackles kick out a little bit deeper. I think that he just has some natural instincts in there that really help him. Plus I think [defensive line] coach [Todd] Wash, with our blitzes, does a good job of putting him in position to be successful."
Davis’ success has not gone unnoticed nationally. He was recently named one of the league’s better multi-gap rushers, along with Seattle’s Michael Bennett and Chicago’s Pernell McPhee, in a piece by Sports Illustrated’s Doug Farrar. Davis said he has studied a lot of tape of Bennett, especially when Bennett lined up inside, and that helped him during his first two seasons when he played in just eight games.
"Once I started playing inside I started watching this guy," Davis said. "At first I was like, 'I’m 260 on a good day during the season; I can’t go in there with these big guys.' But once I did some one-on-ones, 'OK, I kind of like it down here, so I think can do a little bit down here.'
"And coach [Wash] saw fit that he put me down there, and [I] just used some speed and quickness in there and it worked out."
Davis could get more snaps outside in 2015 because of the loss of first-round pick Dante Fowler Jr. to a torn left ACL, but the Jaguars want to guard against playing him too much because there is concern that could affect his effectiveness as an inside rusher on third down.
More snaps don’t necessarily mean more production, either. Davis played well in 2014, but that was the first success he’s had in the NFL and the Jaguars gave him just a one-year contract worth $585,000. He has to play well in 2015 to earn another contract, one that could include guaranteed money.
Davis said he knows the best way to do that is to continue to thrive in the role he carved out for himself.
"Whether I’m in the game a lot or not I just know when I get in there I have to do something," he said. "I’ve got to go in there and make the most of it, like I did last year. That’s all I’m focused on. Last year I left some sacks out on the field, so this year I want to go and be better in that than last year.
"I’m not comfortable, of course. You never want to get complacent and stuff like that in that aspect, but I also know that, 'OK, I have a role on this team,' and that’s a good feeling."