He is asked why he has such confidence in himself, given that in his two NFL seasons he played sparingly and managed to get a total of only three tackles.
Devante Downs, suddenly a Giants starting inside linebacker, paused for just a moment.
“Um, that just comes from learning the playbook, watching reps, watching film, it’s all a culmination of things,’’ he said. And then he offered something else.
“And I think I have four career tackles,’’ Downs said. “Let’s not forget that one.’’
Yes, indeed, do not shortchange the young man. Downs had three tackles in 2018 in 11 games with the Vikings and one in nine games last season filling a special teams role for the Giants. Give him his due. And then wonder how he ascended to a prominent role in the Giants’ defense.
The answer to that might be: Someone had to. Or else, the new Giants coaching staff sees something in Downs that others missed.
“No, I don’t really have an answer,’’ Downs, 24, said, when asked what has held him back. “Just wait for the timing and when the timing’s right, the time is right. There’s really no answer to that one.’’
Downs is the answer to the question: “Who starts alongside Blake Martinez at inside linebacker for the Giants?’’ Martinez after four years amassing tackles for the Packers arrived via a three-year, $30 million contract and he will likely never, or rarely, come off the field as he makes the defensive calls. Beside him, the Giants had Ryan Connelly coming off a strong, although injury-shorted rookie year, and also David Mayo, a 27-year-old with stops with the Panthers and 49ers before playing well against the run for the Giants in 2019.
Connelly has not yet made it all the way back from knee surgery and was the Giants’ most surprising cut. He was claimed off waivers by the Vikings. Mayo is on injured reserve with a torn meniscus and must miss at least the first three weeks.
Downs, though, worked with the starting defense all summer. It was not as if he passed Connelly and Mayo down the stretch of training camp. He was ahead from the start, and stayed there. There is something about the sturdy 6-foot-2, 252-pound Downs this coaching staff preferred. Maybe it is his size — bigger than his competition — and that he might be a bit more physical.
“The one thing about him that showed up with him that I would say stuck out was just even looking back at the tape, his athletic ability,’’ defensive coordinator Patrick Graham said. “His ability to play on his feet and not be on the ground. He has some good speed, good burst. What we were looking for was like ‘OK,’ then you got a chance to meet him. He had the right demeanor that you are looking for at the linebacker position.
“It was all about building his confidence. I’m not saying he didn’t have confidence. To be at this level, you have to have some confidence. Building his confidence in terms of, ‘I think he can do this. Do you know you can do this? Let’s do it together.’ ’’
Downs was a 2018 seventh-round draft pick out of Cal and lasted only one year with the Vikings. He was signed in late October last season to the Giants active roster off their practice squad. There were no indications, though, he would emerge as a starting player.
“I don’t come in with any negative mindset,’’ Downs said. “I come in to do my best, do my job, do what the coaches ask of me and that’s how I approach things. Everyone came in with a clean slate and got a fair chance.’’
Downs certainly made the most of his chance.
“He’s a guy that comes in, you can see his eyes in meetings, he’s very engaged and focused on you when you’re talking,’’ head coach Joe Judge said. “Whether you’re talking directly to him or somebody else, he’s taking the same coaching point. He comes on the field every day, ‘Yes sir,’ ‘No sir,’ goes to work, does whatever you ask him to do to the best of his ability.’’