How does a guy who was a seventh-round pick, has been on the practice squads of two teams, and made three total tackles in his first two NFL seasons become a starting linebacker?
"Four," Devante Downs said, correcting the record on his rather unimpressive stat. "I think I have four career tackles. Let’s not forget that one."
There’s your answer. The desire to be precise along with the near-arrogance to point out when he has been shorted. Because it’s not what Downs does on the field that has changed and allowed him to flourish with the Giants this summer. It’s what is going on in his head and in his heart. A player who had never been given much of an opportunity to show what he could accomplish on the field just decided to show up to training camp with the attitude of a star player.
The word coaches use over and over regarding his somewhat surprising ascension on the depth chart is "confidence."
"It was really about building his confidence," defensive coordinator Patrick Graham said. "I’m not saying he didn’t have any confidence. To be at this level you have to have some confidence. But it was building it in terms of ‘OK, I think you can do this. Do you know you can do this? Let’s do this together.' "
Inside linebackers coach Kevin Sherrer said: "With him, I see a lot of confidence that I didn’t necessarily see on film last year. I’ve seen his confidence really grow."
Graham said he liked what he saw of Downs on film, or at least what film there was without watching those same four tackles over and over again.
"The one thing that showed up with him, that stuck out looking back at the tape, was athletic ability," he said. "His ability to play on his feet and not be on the ground. He had some good speed, good burst. Then what we were looking for was we got a chance to meet him and he had the right demeanor that you are looking for at linebacker."
So when the Giants took the field for the start of camp in late July, Graham had Downs running with the first team. From the outside, he looked like a placeholder for that spot next to defensive captain Blake Martinez in the 3-4 scheme. He seemed to be playing there while veteran David Mayo helped run the less experienced second unit and last year’s promising draft pick Ryan Connelly returned to speed from his torn ACL. But as the preseason progressed, there was no change. Mayo hurt his knee and landed on injured reserve to start the year. Connelly was waived and picked up by the Vikings. And Downs?
He may be starting against the Steelers on Monday night.
Hardly anyone really knew about Downs when the team first started coming together in the spring. He had played just a few games, mostly on special teams, for the Giants in 2019, but almost all of those coaches were fired and replaced.
Martinez knew of him. Kind of.
"My wife’s brother played with him in college, so I got an early kind of synopsis of him just personality wise," Martinez said. "I knew he was a great guy."
Since then, they’ve become wingmen on the field.
"Football wise, he has kind of shown up every single day," Martinez said. "Whatever it is, run, pass, blitzing, communication wise, it’s been awesome to work with him this camp."
For the most part, though, Downs came into this season with a clean slate. Joe Judge preached at the beginning of his tenure that he would play the best players no matter their contract or draft status or previous history in the league. Downs seems to be the one who embodies that philosophy the most.
"You can see his eyes in meetings, he’s very engaged and focused on you when you’re talking," Judge said. "Whether you’re talking directly to him or somebody else, he’s taking the same coaching point. He comes on the field every day, ‘yes sir,’ ‘no sir,’ goes to work, does whatever you ask him to do to the best of his ability. I’m enjoying working with him a whole lot."
Downs said he never doubted that he would reach this level in his career, where his name sits atop the depth chart.
"Just waited for the timing and when the timing’s right the time is right," he said. "I just come out prepared and let the cards fall where they may."
They may fall all the way to the starting lineup on Monday.
"This guy has worked his tail off this camp and leading into this first week of the regular season," Graham said. "I’m talking about everything we have asked him to improve upon he’s really worked hard at. He still has a way to go, just like we all do. But there has been steady improvement, especially with things that are on the checklist. You try to give these guys reachable goals within the week or even within the month of training camp, and he’s trying to hit those points on the check list and doing a pretty solid job.
"We just have to see how it plays out when it gets to the real deal out here."
In other words, the only thing left to do is keep adding to that career tackle total.
And when Downs can no longer remember each and every one he has made, he’ll know he’s really made it.