By: Cory Ezring | @CoryEzring
The 2020 NFL Draft class featured various hyper-versatile defensive players capable of playing multiple roles in a professional defense. Isaiah Simmons of Clemson and Xavier McKinney of Alabama rightfully received national recognition due to both their talent and the prominence of their respective programs. While a bit lesser-known than these two do-it-all defenders, Akeem Davis-Gaither of Appalachian State was a key component of the Mountaineers’ impressive 2019 season. Despite his impactful on-field performance throughout the college football season and a notable showing at the 2020 Senior Bowl, Davis-Gaither was not widely considered to be a top off-ball linebacker prospect.
By late April, The Mountaineers’ defensive chess piece was a projected Day Three selection. At the start of the NFL Draft, four linebackers, including Simmons, were taken in the first round. McKinney, the do-it-all safety from ‘Bama, heard his name called early in the second round, a testament to the value teams place on athletes with fluid projections at the next level. By the end of the second day, five more linebackers had been chosen. However, Davis-Gaither did not have to wait long into the draft’s third day before the Cincinnati Bengals selected the former Mountaineer with the first pick of the fourth round, at 107 overall.
Despite his relatively-low draft stock, the Appalachian State defensive chess piece had a standout college career, where he exhibited the talent and all-around skill-set to succeed in the NFL. Indeed, the versatile linebacker impacted games from multiple alignments and in their biggest moments. Some of Davis-Gaither’s best film came in the final minutes of close games against Georgia Southern and North Carolina (both in 2019). His remarkable production, clutch play and ability to line up all over the Mountaineers’ defense helped Davis-Gaither earn the 2019 Sun Belt Defensive Player of the Year Award, while also being named First-Team All-Sun Belt. In his senior year, he recorded 104 tackles, 14.5 tackles for loss, five sacks, eight passes broken up, one interception and one blocked field goal.
As his statistics would indicate, versatility was perhaps the best trait as a draft prospect for the all-conference linebacker. Davis-Gaither operated primarily as an off-ball linebacker but also spent substantial time rushing the passer as an on-ball outside linebacker and playing in coverage out of the slot. Furthermore, he was able to excel and display promising traits from each of these alignments.
To succeed in these various roles, a player must boast a high motor and above-average athleticism. Davis-Gaither consistently proved he had both at Appalachian State. The young linebacker played at full speed on every snap. Even on breakaway runs, the Mountaineers’ star hustled to chase down ball-carriers. Moreover, Davis-Gaither was an explosive and fluid athlete at the second level of a defense. The senior had legitimate sideline-to-sideline range and could change direction with ease.
On top of his effort and athletic traits, the 2019 Sun Belt Defensive Player of the Year was an impressive coverage linebacker in college. He used his reliable instincts to sniff out and subsequently blow up screens and other underneath routes. What’s more, Davis-Gaither’s movement skills made him viable in man coverage and a legitimate threat in zone coverage.
The versatile linebacker held his own in man coverage out of the slot, thanks to his strength and fluidity. Davis-Gaither was physical within the contact window, which helped him mirror route runners through their breaks. He also generally played patiently in coverage, refraining from falling for any deception by receivers up the route stem.
The All-Sun Belt defender was even more effective in zone coverage. Davis-Gaither both had a solid feel for route combinations and read the quarterback while reacting accordingly in real-time. The explosive athlete was able to effectively click and close on throws into his zone and even flashed the ability to bait quarterbacks into bad decisions before capitalizing with impressive burst and ball skills. Davis-Gaither also displayed strong hand-eye coordination, regularly getting his arms up and into passing lanes.
Against the run, the Mountaineers’ defensive star used his movement skills and functional strength to both work through blocks and make plays on ball-carriers. A smaller athlete, Davis Gaither still possessed sufficient power, combined with proper hand usage and impressive lateral agility, enabling him to handle run blockers at the point of engagement by either shedding or evading contact. He also flashed the upper body strength and understanding of leverage to bench press and stack linemen to set the edge. Moreover, Davis-Gaither had good vision, instincts and athleticism to identify the ball-carrier through traffic and finish.
Once at the point of contact with the ball-carrier, the talented defender consistently proved himself to be an efficient tackler. Davis-Gaither generally wrapped up and even flashed the awareness to play the runner’s outside leg. Additionally, his movement skills typically put him in a position to put his shoulder behind his tackles. Consequently, Davis-Gaither had solid stopping power at the tackle point.
Although he excelled as a coverage linebacker, the do-it-all defender also served as a dangerous weapon when rushing the quarterback. He consistently showed a willingness to use his hands at the point of engagement against larger blockers. Additionally, Davis-Gaither had the flexibility throughout his frame to bend and dip below blockers’ reach. By reducing the blockable surface area, the talented defender was able to shorten his path to the quarterback. Davis-Gaither’s quickness also added value by enabling him to shoot gaps as a blitzer.
Despite his many strengths, the Appalachian State product fell to the fourth round and was the tenth linebacker taken in the 2020 NFL Draft as a result of various concerns amongst NFL teams regarding his physical traits and on-field performance.
Criticisms of the former Mountaineer were typically centered around his size. At a shade over 6- 1 and listed at 219 pounds by his alma mater, Davis-Gaither did not meet the typical standard for height and weight for an NFL linebacker. What’s more, his measurements at the Combine reaffirmed these issues. Davis-Gaither put on five pounds (weighing in at 224 in Indianapolis) but his height was confirmed. Moreover, his 31 1⁄8” arms were far below the desired length for a linebacker.
Although coverage ability was generally a strength for the versatile defender, he played aggressively and took himself out of position to make a play too often. Specifically, Davis Gaither tended to bite on play-action or other play fakes. As a result, he would free up passing lanes into his zone. Furthermore, the senior linebacker would lock onto underneath routes and lose discipline in his coverage.
This aggressive play style and its negative effects carried over to his run defense. The talented linebacker struggled to read the mesh point and could remove himself from the play by either misidentifying the ball-carrier or working too far upfield. Similarly, Davis-Gaither had inconsistent gap integrity and would regularly press the line of scrimmage prematurely. Despite his talent at the point of engagement, the undersized backer was successfully blocked or washed out of the play at too high a rate.
The playmaker’s overly-aggressive nature further limited him as a tackler. While he was generally able to wrap up at the tackle point, Davis-Gaither tended to take poor downhill angles to the ball-carrier. By playing the inside leg, he provided room for the runner to work outside. This mental error capped the value his athleticism could provide at and approaching the tackle point. No matter how well he moves, he must aim properly; his tape at Appalachian State showed that was not a given.
A talented pass rusher, the All-Sun Belt linebacker lacked the size and length to operate in that role consistently in the NFL. Moreover, he failed to enter plays with a plan of attack. Rather, he seemed to process his and the offensive lineman’s actions too slowly and appeared hesitant at times when attacking off the edge.
A fourth-round selection is generally a flawed prospect expected to be a solid contributor in the NFL. Davis-Gaither certainly exhibited that potential at Appalachian State and Cincinnati felt he was worth their pick at 107. That being said, it is worth noting that the Bengals chose Wyoming linebacker Logan Wilson with the first pick of the third round. They also took the injured-but talented Purdue linebacker Markus Bailey with the first pick of the seventh round.
So, while the former Mountaineer’s draft slot implied an expectation that he would contribute, the Bengals’ selections in the 2020 NFL Draft indicated there would be competition in a young linebacker room.
So far in his young career, the fourth-round pick and the second linebacker taken by Cincinnati has earned playing time in each game through their first 16. He recorded his first career start in Week Five against the division-rival Baltimore Ravens. That being said, his percentage of snaps from week to week has been anything but consistent. In for most probable passing downs, Davis-Gaither has played as much as 79% of the Bengals’ defensive snaps in a week. Conversely, he has played as little as 2% of the Bengals’ defensive snaps in a week. In other words, Davis-Gaither has worked his way into a contributing role in the NFL early but has not been able to carve out consistent playing time.
When on the field, the Appalachian State product has provided several reasons for optimism regarding his future in the NFL. First and foremost, Davis-Gaither is playing with confidence, as is shown by his pre-snap communication and direction given to his teammates.
The young defender has backed up his commanding presence before the play with exceptional athleticism. The hybrid defender is a sudden and fluid mover who can work laterally or linearly with ease and at a high pace. His movement skills have helped him make impact plays both in coverage and against the run.
In pass defense, the rookie has stood out thanks to his unique athleticism. Davis-Gaither’s movement skills enable him to operate in virtually any coverage scheme. He has the fluidity and linear athleticism to handle man coverage against running backs and tight ends. Moreover, Davis-Gaither has also already displayed sufficient patience in man coverage to refrain from biting on deception by the route runner.
What’s more, the former Mountaineer has been used in zone coverage at every level of the field. Davis-Gaither has primarily operated at the second level of the defense but has been asked to drop into a deep third zone at times. He has the burst in every direction to click and close quickly and has even flashed the capability to feel out route combinations and position himself properly to maximize leverage. An all-around defender, Davis-Gaither’s ceiling as a coverage linebacker is that of an NFL starter.
Against the run, the undersized backer has flashed promising traits. Specifically, Davis-Gaither has been an efficient and effective tackler in space. Moreover, he compensates for his shorter arms by mirroring ball-carriers and exploding into contact.
Perhaps the most notable and promising aspect of the Cincinnati rookie’s play has been his progress throughout the season. After struggling with issues of gap integrity and instincts in zone coverage early in the season, Davis-Gaither has already begun to improve after a massive jump in competition upon entering the NFL. The Appalachian State product is a special athlete. If his processing continues to improve, he could be a valuable piece of the Bengals’ defense.
Although hyper-athletic and full of potential, the fourth-round rookie has exhibited aspects of his play that must be fixed for him to find success in the NFL. While he has improved in this area over time, Davis-Gaither can be slow to process and recognize plays. The young linebacker has struggled to diagnose run or pass and frequently bites on play-action and trick plays. Against the run, Davis-Gaither can be slow to read the mesh point, even reading it incorrectly at times.
The former Mountaineer’s still-developing processing is especially problematic when coupled with the aggressive tendencies that he has held onto from Appalachian State. Davis-Gaither tends to press the line of scrimmage early against the run and in coverage. In other words, the rookie routinely takes himself out of contention to make a play by playing too close to the line of scrimmage.
In coverage, the first-year player has struggled with nuances of pass defense which, consequently, has hindered his ability to impact games consistently. For instance, Davis-Gaither struggles with depth in zone coverage and provides throwing lanes as a result. Similarly, he can lock in on underneath routes which, in turn, clears up deep passing lanes.
What’s more, Cincinnati’s fourth-round pick has struggled in man coverage as a result of his hip discipline and press technique. He often flips his hips too late which sacrifices a step to opposing route runners. Additionally, Davis-Gaither tends to lunge at receivers in the contact window which, more often than not, leaves him playing recovery. Finally, the still-growing rookie has flashed the negative tendency to lock his eyes onto the quarterback in man coverage. Davis-Gaither does not frequently make this mistake; however, it is worth keeping in mind when considering his progression in the NFL.
Despite the rookie’s efficiency as an open-field tackler, he has struggled to make plays against the run in the box. Davis-Gaither is a small linebacker with short arms for the position. As a result, he does not possess the length to make plays on ball-carriers through contact. He also struggles to disengage from blocks once linemen have latched on. He has even been beaten by running backs in pass protection when he fails to use his hands properly.
Although there are areas of necessary improvement, the Appalachian State product could have a promising future in the NFL. The problematic aspects of his play, though costly on a snap-to-snap basis, may be fixable and should not be viewed as necessarily limiting Davis-Gaither’s potential. The rookie has already made substantial progress considering he came from the Group of Five level and was forced to adapt to the professional game and its speed during an abnormal offseason. It is also worth noting that Cincinnati has not capitalized on his versatility. As he grows as a player and a processor, his role and impact should increase.
While his future success is certainly contingent on his fixing these issues and developing mentally, the former Mountaineer has unteachable athleticism that provides him with a rosterable floor. For now, the rookie is a developmental sub-package linebacker. If he reaches his potential, he can be a hybrid defender tasked primarily with playing in space to maximize his talent. With improved processing through accumulated experience, the Appalachian State product could even develop into a base WILL linebacker. With time and coaching, Davis-Gaither has the upside to become a consistent contributor for an NFL defense.
For a more in-depth read on his strengths and weaknesses in college, below you can read my 2020 NFL Draft scouting report on Davis-Gaither based on his play at Appalachian State:
He played all over the field for App State – off-ball linebacker, edge, slot, etc. He is better as a space defender who does not necessarily line up in the box (except on occasion). Davis-Gaither can immediately play in a dime linebacker role and mix things up against quarterbacks because of his versatility. He is a high effort player who will chase down long runs that were not originally to his side of the field.
Another area of his game that stands out is his sideline-to-sideline ability at the second level. Davis-Gaither demonstrates excellent transitional and multidirectional movement skills. He’s very quick and explosive for the linebacker position. In addition, he possesses nice bend and flexibility in his hips. He has the requisite and even desired athleticism to defend the quarterback on option plays, plus the burst to potentially defend both option ball-carriers at once on speed/pitch option plays.
Davis-Gaither is an instinctual player in pass defense who is quick to diagnose and react to screenplays. He has shown a propensity to blow up underneath designed RAC plays with his instincts, speed and ability to overpower receivers and blocking tight ends. He has a very good feel for the first down marker as a tackler and a zone defender.
Showcasing the requisite athleticism to excel in both man and zone coverage, Davis-Gaither demonstrates instincts in zone coverage and pairs it with very good movement skills. Although he does not have many reps in man coverage, he’s fairly sticky with decently fluid hips. He has the ability and a willingness to be physical at the line in coverage against wide receivers. A patient pass defender who lets receivers run their routes without biting too hard on double moves, he seems to show keen awareness in zone coverage. Davis-Gaither shows a natural feel for his zones and where people are within his zone. He’s very active and able to read the quarterback’s eyes in zone coverage, along with tremendous click and close speed. At times he will tend to bait quarterbacks into bad decisions and has the athleticism to capitalize (pick against UNC (2019). He is very good about getting his arms up and in passing lanes.
An active and willing run defender, Davis-Gaither is fairly powerful, despite his size and shows the ability to disengage from offensive linemen at times. He demonstrates sound hand usage and block-shedding ability in the run game. He is also very good at evading blocks in open space, with the impressive lateral quickness and uses it to make blockers whiff. Has possesses the power and leg drive to work through blockers and awareness in run defense to stack blocks and to play the role of the force man. Davis-Gaither has the upper body strength to bench press and work through blockers in the run game. He utilizes his length well by using leverage, although he has somewhat short arms. He’ll work through the trash at and around the line of scrimmage well to find the ball-carrier.
A sound tackler who wraps up using all of his frame and power – in the open field and in traffic. Davis-Gaither thrives at stopping power as a tackler who fills holes at the line of scrimmage physically and effectively. On runs to the sideline, he displays the intelligence and awareness to play the runner’s outside leg. He’s willing to give a big hit when the opportunity presents itself but is a safe tackler when he has to be.
He shows exciting traits as a blitzer off the edge – with more weight, he would be a very good edge prospect due to his quickness and burst to shoot gaps as a blitzer. He has the ability to get under the opposition’s reach and the capability and awareness to reduce his blockable surface area when he is coming around the edge.
He has shown a propensity to come up big in critical moments (played exceptionally in the last four minutes of Georgia Southern (2019) game and played well in the 4th quarter of the UNC (2019) game).
His size is concerning and raises questions about his position at the next level – will likely play a hybrid safety-linebacker role; very slight frame for a linebacker.
He tends to gets a bit aggressive in zone coverage. At times, he can come up and bite on play action and other play fakes which can leave his zone undermanned. While he has the athleticism to generally recover, a good quarterback with a quick release can exploit this tendency. Occasionally, he focuses too much on the underneath designed short passes and allows himself to lose discipline in his zone.
His aggression or over-eagerness to make a play impacts him against read-option plays, at times, he bites and will misread the play or will tend to take himself out of the play by working too far into the backfield in the run game. Davis-Gaither too often presses the line in run defense (because he has some aggressive tendencies as a player) and can take himself out of his assigned gap, resulting in a big play. He can be washed out of plays or displaced because of his smaller stature and shows too much of a willingness or even desire to engage with a blocker, rather than work his way to the ball-carrier.
This player understands angles on breakaway runs but can be a bit aggressive when coming up to make tackles at or near the line of scrimmage. Too often, Davis-Gaither came downhill to the ball-carrier at an overly-aggressive angle.
When he is playing that edge rusher role, you want to see him be more consistent in his aggression and willingness to attack the line of scrimmage rather than overthink and be hesitant.
All in all, the former Mountaineer’s impact at the college level from multiple alignments made him a game-changer for Appalachian State and instilled the Bengals with the confidence to select him in the NFL Draft’s fourth round. Through the majority of his first season, Davis-Gaither has shown that he has the versatility and athleticism to be a contributor for an NFL defense if used properly. What’s more, his issues with processing and play recognition could improve after a full offseason in Cincinnati, considering his high-level instincts in college and the jump in competition he has had to make in a season marred by COVID-19. While the various concerns surrounding his game are certainly worth keeping in mind, Akeem Davis-Gaither has the talent and potential to be a successful NFL defender if defensive coordinators are willing to use him in multiple roles.
Be sure to check back for next week’s Rookie Spotlight article for a deep dive into Seattle Seahawks offensive lineman Damien Lewis.