Way back when the Giants first stepped onto the field in the spring, Tae Davis lined up as one of the starting inside linebackers. The second-year player had made four starts in the second half of last season, but they were fairly unremarkable and it felt as if he was just holding the spot for the time being. The Giants, it seemed, were waiting for someone better to come along to play there.
Now that the regular season is about to begin, maybe someone has.
Maybe it’s Tae Davis.
“It was up to me to continue to build off of that and to continue to show them that I was worthy of being in the starting lineup,” he said of the opportunity. “It’s easy to say.”
Hard to do. And yet, with the opener against the Cowboys just days away, Davis is poised to be on the field for the first snaps of the season.
He is the most anonymous player on the defense, the only one of the 11 projected starters who came into the NFL as an undrafted rookie, but he plays one of the most important roles. He’s the coverage linebacker, the one who mans up against the pass-catching running backs and tight ends that have changed the way the game is played in the NFL in the past few years. They call his spot in the scheme the “moneybacker,” a term coordinator James Bettcher first introduced with the Cardinals and then brought with him to the Giants.
Everyone needs money, right? The position is that significant.
A safety for most of his college career, Davis is only starting to get comfortable at linebacker.
“I’m still learning a lot of things about linebacker daily,” he said. “Still getting better with block shedding, keying different things . . . All those guys tell me, ‘You’re not going to learn everything in one night.’ It takes time. Things are learned through experience. Something bad may happen or something good may happen but you just have to continue to learn all those things.”
Davis was heading into his senior season at Tennessee-Chattanooga when Tom Arth was named head coach and brought in a new staff. They saw film of Davis and how big he was as a safety, and noticed that he made a lot of plays near the line of scrimmage. They also saw the NFL changing, with sleeker, faster linebackers in coverage such as Lavonte David, Kwon Alexander, Ryan Shazier . . . and Deone Bucannon, who was Bettcher’s moneybacker prototype.
“Right before spring ball started they brought me in the office and talked to me about it and explained to me that the game has changed and there aren’t the traditional 250-pound linebackers,” Davis said. “There are guys who are my size. He named a couple of guys to kind of take notice of and how they’re having success, how the linebacker position is becoming a bigger safety or smaller linebacker. After talking to them there was no hesitation to make that move."
When he first made the switch, Davis said the adjustment was huge.
“I didn’t really know anything about linebacker,” he said. “I was tired of getting blocked or getting held up if I run myself into a block. It was a struggle early on, I didn’t like it as much. But as time went on I kind of started jelling and feeling it out. I really liked it a lot. It puts me closer to the action.”
It wound up being a good decision. Davis didn’t have a breakout senior season in college, but he made the Giants’ roster last season as an undrafted free agent. By the end of the year he was playing more and starting in some situations. Now, he’ll head into this regular season as a starting inside linebacker for the Giants against the Cowboys.
“He’s gotten better, he’s improved,” Pat Shurmur said of Davis. “I think we have a lot of young players that made a lot of improvements because they were getting way more reps a year ago than they would normally get on some rosters. He took full advantage of that, and I think it’s helped him in this camp, for sure.”
Giants safety Jabrill Peppers didn’t know much about Davis when he arrived in the offseason trade of Odell Beckham Jr., but he quickly was impressed.
“Tae has been great,” Peppers said. “He’s very fluid, he used to be a safety. He has very great feet, he’s very fast, quick twitch. He’s getting better with his calls and playing in there. I definitely think Tae is going to be a tremendous help for us.”
Peppers also said he has a better on-field connection with Davis because they share a background at safety.
“We kind of already have that feel for playing around the ball and working with one another in combo coverages and things like that,” Peppers said. “When you have a guy who can do that, but just a bigger guy, I think that you have a lot of versatility in what you can call and where you can put guys. It definitely helps when we want to go sub or when we want to play fast or put him on the back or put him on the tight end.”
That’s what has earned him a spot at the top of the depth chart in the spring. Staying there was the challenge. And now it seems it’s been done. He’s playing a position once manned by Harry Carson and Sam Huff, wearing a number once worn by Carl Banks. Those are some of the most recognizable names in franchise history, some of the best players in NFL history.
Davis isn’t in that echelon. Far from it. He’s unrecognizable off the field, and even on it some of the biggest Giants fans will watch him play and wonder who he is. That’s fine with Davis, who said he doesn’t mind the lack of attention from outside the organization.
The attention of the coaches and his teammates is more important.
“It means a lot,” Davis said of going into the season as a starter. “It kind of lets me know that I’ve come a long way to be here. It gives me even more confidence to know the coaches believe in me, the guys believe in me. It tells me don’t hold anything back, just continue to play. Don’t try to be someone else, just try to be me.”