Last time, Jarrad Davis didn't want to be here. Now he's striving to stay.


When Jarrad Davis parted ways with the Lions after the 2020 season, he never thought he’d return.

“But when the opportunity presented itself,” Davis said Monday, “I was like, ‘Man, it’d be awesome to be back.’”

Davis signed a one-year (and perhaps last-ditch) deal with the Lions this offseason, drawn home to “the place that raised me.” There were times during his first stint with the organization that Davis admitted he didn’t want to be here at all. Discouraged by his own play and that of the team, the former first-round pick nearly walked away from the game.

“Just being in a downswing, not only when your team loses but when you feel like you’re not performing to your standard, it’s very challenging,” Davis said. “And then growing up and becoming an adult and a man and having to deal with the challenges of the world that face you outside of this, especially as an athlete, there’s a lot of things that got to me and I wasn’t able to really bounce back.

“But being able to step away and say, 'Hey, do I want to play football anymore?’ choosing to continue to play, getting a fresh take on it and being able to come back and know what comes with it, what doesn’t and having my eyes open through the whole process has helped me grow and really define what I want to do.”

Davis, 27, said his lowest points came in 2019 and 2020 when he was either hurt or lost in the middle of Detroit’s defense, sometimes both. He went from a linebacker who played almost every game and every snap in his first two seasons to one who made just four starts in his fourth season. He was labeled, rather fairly, a bust.

“Playing injured pretty much (all of 2019) and then coming back in 2020 and feeling good, reshaping my body and things not really going my way, it left me a little baffled,” Davis said. “I didn’t understand what was going on, but that’s the life of the league.”

At the start of the 2021 offseason, Davis thought hard about his future. From January through March, he said he “cut football off” to reprioritize his life.

“I made a personal decision and said, ‘Hey, the game has served me well to this point and if I have it, I have it. If I don’t, I don’t and that’s fine with me.’ And I was able to go out and just choose to live in my own body, live for myself at that point.”

Davis said he spent more time with his family, “which I missed so much.” And during conversations with his mom, he decided he still belonged in football.

“Listening to my mom tell all her stories about how she always followed me around because we were chasing a ball, in little league, high school and middle school, coming to all my college games, it just reinvigorated things and gave me a clear-eyed viewed of what was, what happened, what life has been,” Davis said. “I feel like sometimes you go so far and so hard in life that you don’t look at the good things that have happened to you. When you’re trying to master things, you only look at the bad so you can correct the bad. You never appreciate the positive. You never appreciate what you have, you’re always trying to chase what you want to get.

“Having a chance to stop and really just say, ‘What do I actually have with me? What personality traits, what qualities do I have?’ it helped me see, man, this game is for me.”

Davis ultimately landed a one-year, $5.5 million deal with the Jets, a nod to his pedigree as much as his past performance. Hampered by an ankle injury, he didn’t play well. In fact, he was the worst linebacker in the NFL last season among those who played at least 200 snaps, according to Pro Football Focus. But the Lions saw enough in Davis to give him a shot: a non-guaranteed deal worth the league minimum. In other words, a tryout. And that’s exactly how he's viewing heading into the team’s first preseason game Friday.

“This is huge,” Davis said. “How I’m looking at it going in is, man, this could be one of many opportunities or one of my last opportunities. It’s an opportunity and it’s a great one, so I’m excited to take full advantage of it.”

There’s no doubt the Lions linebackers room could use a boost. It’s less clear whether Davis can provide it. He hits hard and can get after the quarterback, but he’s often a step or two behind in reacting to the offense. He’s a liability in coverage. If there’s hope for Davis, it’s that his pass-rushing skills will show up in Aaron Glenn’s new attack-oriented defense.

“AG has a lot of things that tie into this defense that really allow us to move around and come from different areas and really pressure the quarterback,” he said.

So far, Davis hasn’t made any significant push up Detroit's depth chart. The linebacker on the rise is rookie Malcolm Rodriguez. But Dan Campbell has noticed Davis “hunger.” The coach commended him Monday for doing “everything you ask him to do” and said he’s made some more noise, quite literally, since the pads came on at camp last week.

“All of a sudden, the pads come on and he comes to life, which we all kind of figured was going to happen. That’s his domain and that’s when he really shows up,” said Campbell. “He’s a pro’s pro.”

For his own part, Davis said he “started off a little rocky and had to figure some things out,” but has felt better of late.

“I’m starting to really see where I’m supposed to be at, where my spots are, how to communicate, how to verbalize things to certain guys and be able to go out there and just play fast. This is year six for me. There were so many things that I struggled with my first four or five years that I don’t really feel the pressure of or the stress of now,” Davis said. “Experience is king.”

Dripping sweat as he spoke to the media Monday after practice, Davis smiled freely. He said this is how “it’s supposed to feel.” He’s not the first-round pick anymore. He’s not the linebacker of the future. He’s just a linebacker trying to make the team, like in high school or college “when I wasn’t the guy.” He said he’s found "that love for the game again.”

Davis recalled a conversation he had with a trainer he worked with a couple offseasons ago. His career had started to falter. The trainer pointed out the difference between being at the top of the mountain and “being the wolf, climbing the mountain.” We’ll see how far Davis climbs. Either way, this is where he wants to be.

“Having to come out every day and push and strive, it brings out the best in you,” he said. “You don’t have an opportunity to say, ‘Oh, I don’t feel good today,’ or, ‘I don’t feel like it,’ because if you do that, you don’t eat. You starve that day, and it never feels good to starve. I was drafted here, I was a first-round pick, all that stuff. That’s cool. But now we gotta come out and play football and you gotta really say, ‘Do you want to do this? Do you want to be here?’

“And my answer every morning when I wake up and put my feet on the ground is yes. Yes, please.”