After watching the Bengals take a linebacker in the third round on Friday, Akeem Davis-Gaither didn't think he was going to the team that he clicked so well with at the Senior Bowl.
But the Cincinnati coaches and scouts knew all along they wanted the Sun Belt Conference Player of the Year right at this very spot at the top of the fourth round to begin Saturday's last day of the draft. Not too long ago in the draft process Bengals linebackers coach Al Golden reminded the group that there was no question Davis-Gaither was "the alpha male," of the South defense in the all-star game the Bengals coached in Mobile, Ala.
"He's a tough kid. He's a coach's son. He's a guy that really is first one in a meeting, last one out of a meeting," said defensive coordinator Lou Anarumo. "I think he's a guy that's going to work his tail off to do whatever we ask, and he brings a ton of athleticism. We're happy with the value that we got at this point. "
With the acquisition of the 6-2, 224-pound Davis-Gaither, it looks like they've got one of those versatile, speedy backers (he says he goes 4.5 seconds in the 40) they've needed so desperately in the evolving AFC North that seems to have more and more open spaces.
Like the third-rounder Logan Wilson, Davis-Gaither projects as a stack linebacker that can play both inside outside. Mainly a space player at Appalachian State, he won over the Bengals with how quickly and effectively he picked up playing inside while calling signals as the defensive captain. And special teams coordinator Darrin Simmons, always looking for a linebacker, has to love a rookie that says, "I love playing special teams."
He better. He's going to play them all.
"This guy," said senior defensive assistant Mark Duffner, "isn't coming off the field. And a first-class kid. I don't like him, I love him. Very active player. Very focused kid."
Davis-Gaither waited it out in Greensboro, N.C., with his sister, brother and two-year-old daughter Camilla Joy. Which was just about right when he got the call.
Anarumo: "He's got some position flex, which we like. He can do both. We can move him around a little bit. He actually played nickel at App State some, so he's been out of the box, he's been in the box. A guy like that is really going to help our special teams. He can potentially be on the field for all four downs, which is great."
Here's why teams loving coaching the Senior Bowl:
"We had a situation during the game where the other team ran a power play that he kind of mis-fit," Anarumo said. "Coach Golden got him on the sideline and then in the fourth quarter they ran the same play and he fits it perfect."
And he did it all with a partial stress fracture in his foot that picked up in the third game. So not only did he play the Senior Bowl hurt, he racked up most of his 104 tackles and career highs in tackles for loss (14.5), pass deflections (nine), sacks (five) and interceptions (one) on a foot that needed surgery in early March.
He couldn't run the 40 at the NFL scouting combine, but this is another reason scouts and coaches like working the Senior Bowl. They knew enough they didn't need to see him run. And they now know he's certainly tough.
"I just wanted to fight through it for my teammates," Davis-Gaither said. "Of course, the doctors gave me the risk factors. They told me at any moment it can completely snap so I just said I'll just take those chances."
He says he'll be able to get on the field in about two weeks and when he gets there here's what he says he brings:
"My instincts. Being able to find the ball and track down the ball," Davis-Gaither said. "My ability to play every down, whether that's in coverage or pass rush or man. My ability to run and hit and be a playmaker."
And there's that alpha male thing as a captain everywhere he goes.
"It will tell you what your teammates and your coaching staff think about you as a player and as a leader on the team," Davis-Gaither said. "I always wanted to be able to stand out there and be a leader on the team and really be that go to guy on the team that all the guys want to be around and that they want to take some notes from and just be a role model on the team."
He's used to listening to coaches. His dad, Keith Gaither, is a long-time college assistant now the wide receivers coach at Army. So his son actually embraced the Bengals' decision to switch positions for the biggest showcase of his life.
"Just being able to see the whole picture," Davis-Gaither said of the adjustment to the inside. "Seeing the box. Go from only having to read a half of a box, I have to see the whole box. That's a little bit different."
But Davis-Gaither is going to make his money in the AFC North on the perimeter. Kid, meet Lamar Jackson, MVP. The pundits have loved showing the replays of Jackson juking the Bengals into countless missed tackles last year and he's unbeaten against them while rushing for 86 yards per game. Much of Davis-Gaither's job at App State involved trying to contain the quarterback.
"Normally in that hybrid position, the nickel linebacker where I was defending the slot taking away the RPO read," he said. "Most (of the time) I was out in space in coverage."
But he has no desire to get into anything when it comes to a matchup with Jackson. Coach's son, remember?
"I don't like to do too much talking before the games," Davis-Gaither said. "He's a good player out in space. Every chance I can get, I want to make him one-dimensional, take away any chance he's got to cut back or do anything, just take away any moves he's got."
The Bengals defense is tired of getting moved on, so that's why he's here.