Demario Davis making case as Saints' best free agent of the decade

METAIRIE, La. -- Quarterback Drew Brees' pregame chants have become an iconic part of his role with the New Orleans Saints for more than a decade. So it has been a little jarring to see Brees now sharing that duty with linebacker Demario Davis in recent weeks.

But it speaks volumes about what Davis has brought in less than two years since he arrived in New Orleans as a free agent in March 2018.

"He's got a presence and a way about him that guys really respect," said Brees, who gave his blessing when Davis asked to lead the Saints' pregame huddle when Brees was away from the team following thumb surgery in Week 3.

Brees joined him a few weeks later, and they've turned it into a collaboration since.

"He's just a great teammate, a great human being," Brees said of Davis, whose passionate work in the community has had as much impact as his performance for a defense that ranks No. 1 in the NFL against the run since the start of last season. "We know what he stands for on and off the field. So having a guy like that who backs it all up with the way he plays and the way he speaks and the way he prepares, it's great."

Time will tell -- and a Super Bowl run would certainly help boost the argument -- but there is a strong case to be made for Davis as the Saints' best free-agent signing of the decade.

That list includes running back Darren Sproles, Pro Bowl guards Larry Warford and Ben Grubbs and other defensive standouts like Keenan Lewis and Curtis Lofton. (Pro Bowl center Max Unger was acquired via trade). But Davis might have them all beat when you factor in the void he has filled as an athletic playmaking linebacker and his role as a vocal team leader who has been elected as a captain in each of his two seasons.

Davis' impact is reminiscent of what linebacker Jonathan Vilma brought to the defense when the Saints acquired him via trade in 2008. Davis, who signed a three-year, $24 million deal, leads New Orleans with 69 tackles this year, ranks second with seven tackles for loss, ranks third with eight pass defenses and had his first interception of the season in the first quarter of last Sunday's 34-17 win at Tampa Bay.

"I would say his makeup and being a captain and all of those things has exceeded maybe our expectations when we initially signed him. I think it's outstanding," Saints coach Sean Payton said. "When you sign someone in free agency, you do your homework, you spend a lot of time on the film, but also researching the college grade, makeup and all those things. And I would say, that all being said, he's exceeded what we believed then."

Saints defensive coordinator Dennis Allen agreed, saying the one thing you can never know with free-agent signings is "what that guy's made of internally."

"You can watch the tape and see the skill set, but what you can't see is what's inside, what's in his heart, what's in his mind. And I think that's been one of the things that we've been very pleased with, is just how hard this guy works, how important it is to him, what a great leader he is," Allen said. "And look, it's easy to be a rah-rah speech guy. But if you don't have the work ethic to back it up, nobody really listens to it. But when you've got a guy that's one of your better players that is one of your better workers, now he has a voice."

Last year Davis led the Saints with 110 tackles and had five sacks, among other highlights.

He isn't the only reason New Orleans' run defense has become dominant (allowing 82.2 yards per game since the start of last season). But before Davis arrived, the Saints had never even ranked in the top 10 against the run during the Payton era. Last year, they ranked second. This year, they rank third.

And they haven't allowed a 100-yard rusher in 36 straight games -- though their toughest test yet may come Sunday against the Carolina Panthers and MVP candidate Christian McCaffrey.

"Demario Davis is one of the most overlooked players in the league from a media perspective," said Greg Cosell, the executive producer and on-air analyst for ESPN's NFL Matchup. "Teams that have to play the Saints know what he is, but I think he's one of the best three-down linebackers in the league."

Davis, 30, primarily served as an inside linebacker during his first six NFL seasons with the New York Jets and Cleveland Browns. But the Saints moved him to the weak side in their 4-3 alignment -- where the 6-foot-2, 248-pounder has proved to be a great fit. He is adept at chasing down runners in the open field and blitzing on occasion. And he has performed well in pass coverage against running backs and tight ends, which he admitted was a shortcoming earlier in his career.

The Saints needed their own version of fellow NFC South star linebackers Lavonte David and Thomas Davis. Although Davis is a little bigger than those guys, he has given the Saints that type of presence.

"He's that type of player," Cosell said.

Davis was the only player in the NFL last year with at least 110 tackles, five sacks and 10 QB hits.

In 2017, when he played inside linebacker for the Jets, Davis was also the only player in the NFL with at least 110 tackles, five sacks and 10 QB hits.

And no one marvels at his late-career surge more than he does.

"It's a blessing to be 30 years old and playing my best football. Each year I keep ascending. But I'll tell you what, man: I can't give nobody the glory but God," said Davis, who was drafted in the third round by the Jets out of Arkansas State in 2012 before signing with the Browns in 2016 and being traded back to the Jets in 2017. "When I was in Cleveland, God kind of humbled me ... and he showed me I needed to critique my game a little bit more and spend a little bit more time working smarter, not harder. And I did that.

"That's why I talk about the power of God, and I have no shame in it. When I was in Cleveland, God humbled me to the point where he broke my body all the way down. I was tired, I was hurting, mentally I didn't know if I wanted to continue to play. ... I just prayed before God and said, 'If you want me to continue, you're gonna have to carry me.'"

Davis' faith was never more visible than earlier this season, when he was fined for wearing a "Man of God" headband on the field because players are forbidden from displaying personal messages.

Davis appealed the fine -- and won, while agreeing to stop wearing the headbands. But he turned the publicity from the fine into a cause by selling the headbands and raising thousands of dollars for a hospital in his home state of Mississippi.

Davis, who is a prominent member of the NFL Players Coalition, also received an "In Pursuit of Justice" award from the Bronx Defenders for his work on criminal justice reform in New York. He and former Saints teammate Benjamin Watson helped pass a unanimous jury law in Louisiana. And he and Washington Redskins cornerback Josh Norman delivered water to people in Flint, Michigan, and delivered goods to migrant families who had been in detention centers at the United States-Mexico border, among many other humanitarian efforts.

"You see the 'Man of God' headband and people see that, and you can think whatever. But I know what it is to be a man of God and child of God and sit before him. And I get to just be a witness like y'all," Davis said. "I'm surprised to be playing at this level, too, even though I put the work in. So we'll see where the ceiling is."

The ceiling? If he keeps this up, Davis could surpass free agents like Jabari Greer, who helped the Saints win their only Super Bowl in 2009. And maybe we'll be talking about him one day as New Orleans' best free-agent addition since Brees himself.