Led by Lawrence Guy, Adam Butler and Danny Shelton, the New England Patriots’ defensive tackle position performed well in 2019. However, that does not mean there is no room for improvement especially 1) against the run, and 2) considering that Shelton is headed for unrestricted free agency. While there is of course a chance that New England re-signs the former first-round draft pick just like last year, the team could go another direction as well.
Enter Alabama’s Raekwon Davis, who is heading into draft season as one of the better prospects along the interior defensive line. As such, and given the long-standing friendship between Patriots head coach Bill Belichick and the Crimson Tide’s Nick Saban, the 22-year-old certainly could be on New England’s radar in case the team wants to add developmental youth to the position alongside Guy and restricted free agent Butler.
With that being said, let’s take a closer look at him.
Name: Raekwon Davis
Position: Defensive tackle
2019 stats: 12 games, 637 defensive snaps; 20 run stops, 26 quarterback pressures (1.0 sack, 4 hits, 21 hurries)
Size: 6070, 312 lbs
Opening day age: 23
Expected round: 2nd-3rd
Strengths: Davis brings outstanding size and length to the position and moves surprisingly well both vertically and laterally for a 6-foot-7 man. His upper-body strength is impressive and he regularly pushes opposing blockers back upon initial contact, while keeping them at bay due to his long arms. He also knows how to keep his feet active once engaged to generate an up-field push even when going against top-tier competition in the SEC.
Davis’ hustle and block recognition are solid, and he appears to read his keys well and to understand blocking schemes. He also has experience working against double teams and when asked to play a two-gap system. While not the quickest player out of his stance, he can give linemen issues to his flexible hips. He also plays with a solid foundational technique to counter blocks in the running game, while hardly overselling.
Weaknesses: Davis’ pass-rushing impact was limited at Alabama, which has a lot to do with his size: his pad level was inconsistent as he failed to get low enough to challenge his opponents, while his lack of counter-moves and raw technique against pass blockers did not do him any favors. His leverage and balance at the point of attack also are predictably inconsistent. His ceiling in the passing game therefore appears to be rather low, despite his impressive physical tools and ability to read and react to blockers.
While his motor is generally good, conditioning might become a point of emphasis at the next level as he seems to slow down as games go on. As a result of this and his pass-rushing skills, he might project to play only a limited role at the next level. Injuries are not an issue, but he did have to pull out of the Senior Bowl due to an ankle injury.
What would be his role? New England, as noted above, used a three-player rotation at the position in 2019 with Guy as an all-around player, Shelton serving primarily as a run defender, and Butler being used as an interior pass rusher that also saw occasional run-stopping looks as well. Given his strengths as a run defender, Davis would essentially take over Shelton’s role while also bringing positional versatility to the table.
How many downs can he play? Two. Given his limited impact as a pass rusher at Alabama, Davis would be projected to enter the NFL as an early-down run defender in the mold of Danny Shelton. He has upside to turn into a three-down player and special teams presence as well, but needs to get more consistent when it comes to his pad level and pass-rushing moves to get to that point.
What is his special teams value? Alabama did use Davis in the kicking game, but his aforementioned lack of pass-rushing productivity could again limit his usage on special teams in the NFL. The best-case scenario for him would be to carve out a role as an interior rusher on field goal and extra point attempts.
Does he have positional versatility? Davis does have the versatility to be moved all over the interior defensive line: he could play as a five-technique end in the Patriots’ popular “Okie” front — a three-man line with the nose tackle lined up directly over the center — or move further inside as a three-technique tackle in both over and under fronts. Of course, his usage as a whole will likely depend on the down and distance as he would see most of his snaps in early-down situations.
Will his role change from year one to year two? Ideally, Davis would improve as a pass rusher between years one and two and thus develop into a true three-down defender like Lawrence Guy. If that is the case, his role would expand quite a bit as the calendar turns from 2020 to 2021.
Which current Patriots will he have to beat out? If Danny Shelton does not return in free agency, Davis’ primary competition for playing time along the interior defensive line projects to be second-year man Byron Cowart. The former fifth-round draft pick saw some action during his rookie season but was clearly behind the top-three at the position all year long.
If Shelton returns, meanwhile, the Patriots could opt to go with a four/five-man rotation at defensive tackle: Shelton and Davis would be the primary run defenders with Adam Butler, Cowart and Deatrich Wise Jr. fighting for snaps as interior pass rushers (Guy would remain as a “jack-of-all-trades”). In this case, Shelton would likely be his main competition for playing time.
Why the Patriots? New England’s run defense had its ups and downs in 2019, and adding a developmental player that brings proven production in this area to the table might be the way to go to improve the position as a whole — especially with Shelton no lock to return. While Davis’ upside as a pass rusher appears to be limited, his athletic skillset is solid and he could serve as a day-one member of the defensive tackle rotation nevertheless.
Why not the Patriots? If the Patriots retain Shelton on another cost-effective deal, and feel positive about the long-term development of Adam Butler and Byron Cowart, they simply may not feel the need to invest a possible day two selection in a rather one-dimensional defensive tackle. Additionally, Davis’ development might be called into question after he plateaued a bit over the last two seasons.
Verdict: From the Alabama connection and his strong foundation to his prowess as a run-stopper and positional versatility, Davis seems like a prototypical Patriots draft pick. While his pass-rushing left a lot to be desired at the collegiate level, the right coaching might make him an intriguing high-upside selection in the second or third round considering his athletic profile and prototypical build for a five-technique defensive tackle. If Davis is available once New England is on the clock on day two — whenever it will be — don’t be surprised if he joins the team.