McGinn: No dropping the ball on Davis deal

Bob McGinn
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
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Green Bay —​ At least we now know how desperate the Green Bay Packers believe themselves to be at running back.

Kansas City Chiefs running back Knile Davis is brought down by Green Bay Packers outside linebacker Kyler Fackrell and inside linebacker Jake Ryan.

On Sunday, the Packers fumbled five times. On Monday, general manager Ted Thompson acted upon an offer from the Kansas City Chiefs, who were shopping a veteran running back forever branded in the scouting world as a fumbler.

Six years ago to the day, Thompson acquired his last player via trade. This transaction, Knile Davis to Green Bay for a conditional seventh-round draft choice in 2018, drove Thompson from his comfort zone but was necessary and might turn out to be highly beneficial.

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Nobody wants a fumbler. Coach Mike McCarthy probably gulped more than once, especially with his team an uncharacteristic minus-3 in turnover differential.

Everyone, however, has to line up and play. Unless Thompson wanted to see wide-receivers-masquerading-as-running-backs Ty Montgomery and Randall Cobb in the backfield for 60 minutes Thursday night against the Chicago Bears, the Packers needed a body.

Davis, 5 feet 11 1/2 inches and 227 pounds, is more than that. He becomes the team’s fastest back since Ahman Green, has played 564 regular-season snaps in 3 1/2 seasons for a good coach and a winning organization, and just turned 25.

As additional value, he is one of the NFL’s premier kickoff returners.

With Eddie Lacy and James Starks both out indefinitely, Davis should get a few early-down carries against the Bears and possibly a lot more in the next few games. Bet on him returning kickoffs, too.

“If you do running back by committee, he has a specific role,” an executive in personnel for an AFC team said Wednesday. “If you made him your featured back, you might say he was deficient here or there. As a role guy, he brings really good toughness and he can outrun most DBs.”

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First things first. If Davis puts the ball on the ground, he’ll be cut in a heartbeat, and presumably, the conditions of the trade then wouldn’t be met.

No one knows if Davis, who had just one carry in nine snaps this season, can avoid fumbling on a new team.

In 2012, Davis was benched as a fourth-year junior at Arkansas on a 4-8 squad in John L. Smith’s only season as coach. He fumbled eight times that year, and 13 times in three years.

Eleven NFL scouts were queried about Davis before the draft in 2013. Almost immediately, eight mentioned the fumbling.

“I’ve never seen a guy where people just breathe on him and he drops the ball,” an NFC personnel director said. “He’s so soft and timid. On the field, he just doesn’t have it.”

Davis took a medical redshirt in 2011 after breaking his left ankle in summer practice, struggled upon his return and lost his job. He had broken his right ankle twice (once in high school) and his collarbone twice (once in high school).

“He got hurt in high school, his first year (at Arkansas), last year,” said one scout. “He’s been a medical wreck.”

The injury-prone label has vanished. There have been a few nagging injuries in Kansas City, but nothing major and no surgeries.

Alas, the fumbler tag has not vanished.

As a rookie, Davis fumbled once in the exhibition season and three times in the regular season. He fumbled four times in 2014.

In January, the Chiefs were locked in a taut divisional playoff game in the third quarter at New England. Davis caught a third-and-8 pass for nine yards to the Patriots 31 and fumbled.

Five plays later, Tom Brady threw a touchdown pass. Davis’ fumble, which turned the game completely around, led to a benching by Andy Reid.

Davis finished his career at Arkansas with 13 fumbles in 381 touches, or one every 29.3. His fumble rate in Kansas City was one every 46.8 touches. Lacy has a fumble rate of one every 108.7 touches. Starks sits at one every 75.8.

It’s interesting to remember that the reason the Packers were able to fleece the Seahawks in their April 2000 trade for Green was Seattle coach Mike Holmgren’s ballistic reactions to his ball-security issues.

Green, who cost the Packers cornerback Fred Vinson, fumbled once every 67.1 touches in Green Bay.

Ryan Grant, who arrived from the Giants for a sixth-round pick at the final cut in 2007, finished his six-year career as a Packer with one fumble for every 102.1 touches. Some scouts fretted about Grant’s fumbling at Notre Dame.

Watch Davis carry 14 times against the Packers in the exhibition finale seven weeks ago. It’s obvious he has been hammered on ball security by the Chiefs’ coaches because he entered almost every collision with two arms wrapped around the ball, which isn’t ideal because it decreases speed.

Even so, he came close to losing the ball on a hit by safety Jermaine Whitehead. He has tiny hands (8 1/4 inches at pro day), often a common denominator among fumblers.

If Davis overcomes his fumbling woes, he really should be able to help the Packers, provided he makes a timely adjustment to McCarthy’s offense. He has been described as a true pro and diligent worker and scored the NFL average of 19 on the Wonderlic intelligence test.

According to one executive, Davis hails from the same town in Texas (Missouri City) where Packers personnel executive Alonzo Highsmith resided for years.

“Alonzo knows this kid inside and out,” the scout said in 2013, which in turn might have emboldened the reticent Thompson to pull the trigger.

Davis’ 4.38 speed can’t match Green’s 4.28 pro-day clocking at Nebraska 18 years ago but was better than Grant’s 4.45. He’s not in the same league as Green other than the breakaway dimension.

“He can score from anywhere but he’s not going to be a quick start-and-stop guy,” one scout said. “With people around his feet he just kind of plods his way. He just doesn’t have that quick hit it and go.”

Davis is best running downhill from the I formation. Look for the Packers to do that with him against Chicago, but in the end, they’re a one-back team with a zone run game.

“His limitation in a zone scheme is getting his foot in the ground and getting up field,” the personnel man said. “He’s got to hit it instead of just thinking. He’s straight-line, definitely.”

Counting regular-season and playoff games, Davis’ career rushing average is 3.4. It was an even more trifling 3.3 in 97 exhibition carries.

His hands, once a weakness, have become OK over time. He’s adequate in pass protection, too.

“He’s close to Starks,” said another scout. “Davis will hit a home run, but consistency picking and sliding inside is not his game. If you’re banking on either one of them, you’re going to be disappointed.”

Davis opened a wild-card playoff game in Houston last season with a 106-yard kickoff return, the third touchdown of his career. His career average of 28.4 surpasses the Packers’ career mark of 28.2 held by Dave Hampton.

The Chiefs were able to part with Davis because Jamaal Charles is back, Charcandrick West is another capable darter and Spencer Ware is a more physical pounder.

His new coaches and teammates in Green Bay should feel fortunate Davis was available and that their general manager, at long last, made a move.

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