Mike Davis was a name linked to the Falcons throughout the offseason by analysts and fans, and with good reason. As our own Kevin Knight noted back in early February, Davis is a versatile, capable back who did fine work taking over for an injured Christian McCaffrey in Carolina last year, making him an ideal backup or bridge starter for a depleted backfield. Given that he is a physical runner with good hands who figured to be affordable, there was good reason to link him to a cap-strapped Atlanta team with a head coach fond of tough backs, and so many in this fanbase quite logically did exactly that.
They were proven right, which was part of the reason this was easily the most warmly welcomed signing of the offseason thus far. But the other reason is that Davis is exactly the kind of player the Falcons should have been targeting for their backfield all these years but never seemed to actually go out and sign, but did not, and he figures to be a productive player and good fit for what we all hope is a drastically improved Atlanta offense in 2021.
Let’s start with his value. In a Carolina passing attack without much of a focus on passing to tight ends and with three capable receivers, Davis ended up getting a lot of run as a short range weapon for Teddy Bridgewater. He was fourth on the team in targets, catches, and yardage per Pro Football Reference, averaging about 4 catches and 25 yards per game. His ability to make those grabs consistently and make something happen—he had a sterling 84% catch rate and averaged 7 yards after the catch per reception, making many of those grabs in the backfield—made him a legitimately useful part of Carolina’s passing game. The latter number is a bit better than Derrick Henry and the former number is much better, and Davis and Ito Smith figure to be productive with the targets they do get in Arthur Smith’s offense. That was not an oft-discussed or hugely productive part of his Titans offenses, but the versatility will be welcome.
Of course, his work as a runner is more important for an offensive coordinator who loves a productive ground game and has a ton of weapons for Matt Ryan to work with through the air, and here Davis showed his considerable value a year ago. He was 48th in the NFL in terms of yards before contact with an average of 1.5 yards per before a defender met him, which put him in the same neighborhood as Todd Gurley (1.7) and Brian Hill (2.1) in Dirk Koetter’s hostile running back work environment, but well behind an elusive Ito Smith (2.9). Davis thrived despite that, as he was 14th in the NFL in yards after contact (2.4 per carry) and 4th in the NFL in broken tackles. Gurley clocked in at 1.8, Ito at 1.4 and Hill was at a very strong 2.6 per carry, in case you wondered.
Davis’s hard-charging, power-through-contact style makes him a bargain shopper’s Derrick Henry, who led the NFL in broken tackles and was 4th in yards after contact. If Atlanta can give him better blocking, Davis should have no trouble improving on his superficially so-so 3.9 yards per carry, but that part is probably still a work in progress with Matt Hennessy penciled in at center and no real idea of where left guard is going.
Of course, Davis showed off his physicality and well-rounded game against (who else?) the Falcons just last year, if you’re in the mood to watch some painful memories that may simultaneously get you excited for the future. Being a Falcons fan: Often weird.
In summary, the Falcons got a 28-year-old back coming of a career-best season who offers the ability to pick up tough yardage, serve as a capable pass catching option out of the backfield, and has fumbled just twice on 537 career touches. If the team doesn’t touch the backfield from here on out, they have an interesting special teamer (Tony Brooks-James), a power back to spell Davis and potentially pick up short yardage work (Qadree Ollison), and a versatile slasher who is good enough to get a significant workload alongside Davis (Ito Smith). The chief argument against Davis is that it’s spending the team’s limited dollars on a position where Ito is already a capable back and Ollison theoretically could be with a different offensive coordinator and an actual opportunity, but it’s hardly shocking that Smith wanted someone who just proved he could get the job done for nearly a full season as a lead back in an offense that didn’t always excel at opening holes for him, especially when that player did not exactly break the bank.
If the team is going to address the backfield in free agency, this is the kind of move the Falcons should have been making all these years. Atlanta struck gold in 2008 with Michael Turner, signing a back with fewer than 250 career touches who had gone to waste behind LaDanian Tomlinson in San Diego. Mike Davis is not Michael Turner—he’s two years older than Burner was when he joined up, has double the mileage, and isn’t as gifted a runner even if he’s a far more capable receiving option—but he is a capable veteran back who fits this backfield well and doesn’t have a ton of wear and tear. The team’s last two splash signings at running back were Steven Jackson and Todd Gurley, players who had over 2,800 and nearly 1,800 touches respectively, and simply had already played the most productive years of their respective storied careers. Atlanta was essentially paying, in both cases pretty handsomely, but past glory and the hope that Koetter of all people could revive those glory days with a high-powered Falcons offense. Pivoting away from moves like that, no matter how personally fond we might be of Jackson and Gurley, and toward a player with fresher legs and a more affordable contract is one of the most encouraging things we’ve seen from a front office that has otherwise been quietly stockpiling depth to this point.
I argued a couple of days ago that the Falcons will make their biggest addition to the backfield via the NFL Draft, something I still firmly believe because this is a quality class for backs, Ito Smith is hitting free agency next offseason and Davis is on a short-term deal and will be 30 when his contract ends. The addition of Davis provides them with an affordable lead option this year if they want wait a bit longer and take a back that may be a bigger contributor in year two and beyond, and the burly veteran is someone who is at worst a very fine backup in 2022, especially with Ito Smith hitting free agency next year. He’s exactly the kind of veteran backfield addition you wish the Falcons would have explored in the past—and the largely warm welcome he’s receiving from fans tells you that’s a widely shared sentiment—but getting a player like Mike Davis who can hopefully thrive in Atlanta is still a better late than never move.