When GM/Head Coach Mike Sherman selected Najeh Davenport with the 135th pick of the 2002 NFL Draft, he was ecstatic that such a quality player was still available. Despite other teams having reservations about Davenport's injured foot, Sherman knew he was getting a steal.
Three seasons later, Sherman's selection looks even better and it appears that every team that passed on Davenport made a mistake. The former Miami Hurricane has turned into one of the league's top backup running backs and now the Packers are reaping the rewards of what once was considered a gamble.
Davenport's downhill running style and deceptive speed have become the perfect complement to Ahman Green's shiftiness and quick hitting approach. The 6-1, 250-pound back has also filled in admirably for Green when he's been sidelined with injuries.
In a recent 45-17 win over the St. Louis Rams, Davenport stepped into the limelight with Green sidelined with sore ribs. The Packers' offense never missed a beat as Davenport gained 178 yards on 19 carries, including a 40-yard touchdown run. Although it was his first career start and an electric Monday night atmosphere, Davenport shined despite having sore hamstrings and a rib injury.
Although Davenport can't change where he was selected, he still thinks about how draft day went down for him. When suggested that he fell through the cracks, Davenport couldn't help but laugh.
"You call that a crack?" Davenport said with a chuckle. "It's more like a man hole. I kept falling all the way to the fourth round and I'm grateful to this day for Coach Sherman drafting me.
"He picked me up when a lot of teams had me down to the sixth or seventh round because I broke my foot. Just because a player's injured doesn't necessarily mean he's not a great player. I'm grateful for Coach Sherman picking me up and calling me before he chose me."
Davenport undoubtedly would have been selected much higher if not for foot injury he sustained during his team's preparations for the Rose Bowl. Despite the injury, Davenport said he was healthy enough to play, although Sherman wanted to make sure.
"When he called me he was like, 'This is Coach Sherman, can I ask you a question?' Davenport recalled. "I was happy. No matter what he said, it was going to be yes. He said 'can you fly?' I was like 'yeah' because I wanted to get drafted.
"Coach wanted me to get checked out by his doctors and I had no problem with that. That's how it was, but I would have done anything. Getting drafted was the happiest feeling of my life."
Transition To Tailback A Wise Move
Still, Davenport was considered by many to be a fullback. It was a position he played for the final year and a half of his Miami career, and the Packers originally thought that he might be best suited for that position as a professional as well.
"It seemed like no one thought of what I did prior to my injury," Davenport said. "When I came here they wanted me to play fullback and swing at tailback, so I tried and it was real hard. I started off at fullback and I was not a very good fullback.
"It was like night and day in Green Bay, too. Prior to getting drafted, I played fullback for a year. At Miami, our backs were fast and we would run a lot of stretch plays where my job was to get in the hole, beat the linebacker before he could cross our side of the line, and give Clinton (Portis) a side to go to. And that's what I did. I wasn't a regular, blocking fullback."
Davenport impressed Green Bay coaches early in his rookie season with his tailback-like running skills and natural instincts that it quickly became apparent he was the best player to be Green's understudy. His burst on special teams didn't hurt his cause either.
"I guess they saw my speed on the kickoff returns and they gave me a carry here and a carry there," Davenport recalled. "And then they were like 'oh, this guy maybe can play.' At Detroit, they just let me play and I had a good game."
Davenport did indeed have a good game at Detroit in his inaugural season. He gained 84 yards in his only extensive action of the year and showed tremendous ability returning kicks. In 2003, Davenport continued his excellence in the return game, averaging an impressive 31.6 yards per runback (third highest in team history).
That would have led the entire NFL in kickoff return average, but Davenport fell four returns shy of the 20 needed for qualification, having not assumed those duties for the Packers until the 10th game.
Special teams aside, Davenport's best value to the Packers still rests in his running back abilities. Despite his fullback size, Davenport offers tailback speed. He's a load at 250-pounds but make no mistake about it, Davenport has the rare speed and power that most running backs envy.
Last season Davenport averaged about 10 offensive snaps per game and posted the second-best rushing average (5.45 yards per carry) among the NFL's top 59 running backs, behind only Clinton Portis (5.49), then of the Broncos.
Davenport Runs To Success In Multiple Sports
While those numbers may suggest a great deal of power, Davenport's impressive track career is further proof that he really does possess sprinter's speed. He won four letters (1998-2001) as a sprinter on the Miami track team, competing in the 100-meter dash and 4x100-meter relay; he also was a member of the Hurricanes' 4x100 relay team that was the 1999 Big East champion.
Davenport admitted that his high school track coach at Miami Central High School asked him to come out for the team only after he saw him play football. The move paid off not only then, but also in college.
"They had seen me run a kickoff return back in high school," Davenport said. "I reversed field and did all that and they wanted me to run track after that. So they tried for two years to get me to run track, and my best friend and I went out and we tore it up.
"In college, we just had fast people; we didn't even practice for track. We ran track to get out of weight training for the summer. We'd go out there and run two laps and stretch. The only thing we practiced was the handoffs for the 4x1 team. Other than that, we stood looking at the girls' track team."
It's clear that Davenport has the blazing speed to sprint past opponents, but he also has the size to run over them as well. So what would he rather do?
"It depends on who the guy is," Davenport explained. "If it's like Ray Lewis, or Roy Williams I'd rather run over him. If it's a guy known more for his cover ability not for his tackling ability, I'd rather shake him."
Davenport hasn't had much of an opportunity to do either, lately. When you're stuck behind a great back in Ahman Green that stays relatively healthy, opportunities are often few and far between, but according to Davenport, it's not a problem.
"I think I'm used to it because of the program I came from in college," Davenport said. "We had five great backs. It was me, Clinton Portis, Edgerrin James and James Jackson. EJ would get the first quarter and half of the second, JJ would finish off the second and third quarter and I would get the fourth quarter. You got your reps and your opportunity for yards and it was your showing-off period."
Running Back Finds Happiness In Green Bay
Although Davenport hasn't had much time to show off in Green Bay he doesn't mind the position he's in. He doesn't hesitate when asked if he'd rather be starting for a less successful team.
"When you think about it, you can be a starter for a mediocre team and be spending Christmas and New Year's at home," Davenport explained. "Or you can be a contributor for a great team and be in the playoffs and have an opportunity to win a championship or a Super Bowl. That's how I look at my tenure with the Green Bay Packers.
"I'm playing behind a great player in Ahman Green and I'm learning from him as well as Coach Sly Croom (former running backs coach), Coach Johnny Roland, Edgar Bennett, Coach Sherman, Brett (Favre). I'm just picking up tidbits here and there. So wherever I go, my future may be in Green Bay, but if not, I can be a good enough back that when they look back at me, they attribute my success to the Green Bay Packers and the coaching staff."
For now, Davenport provides a valuable insurance plan behind Green while also allowing him some much-needed breathers.
"I think I take some of the load off him," Davenport said. "It's more of him knowing that when he's at the point where he's exhausted he won't have to be in the game.
"A lot of guys do that where they could be dead tired but they have to go one more rep because they need a first down. Or we need positive yards in second and long or first and long. I think in that aspect of it he can come out of the game and there will be no change."
Just as Davenport enjoys his time on the football field, he also enjoys his time away from it. He lives in Green Bay year-round, and found the time to put his undergraduate degree in theatre to use in the summer of 2003 when he appeared as a nightclub owner in the movie Blood Money, starring Busta Rhymes and 50 Cent.
When he's not busy with football or his acting interests, Davenport also loves to play Playstation video games. He's very serious in his desire to someday work in the gaming business.
"Playstation is coming out with all these good games, but I play a lot of video games and I see stuff that is wrong or I see glitches," Davenport said. "I sometimes think it would be better with this, or it would be better if we could do this. So that is why I want to help Playstation out a little bit.
"I keep telling them they need to hire me. I'll sit there and play games all day for them. Give me a salary and I'll play games all day."
It sounds a lot like the case Davenport could have made before he was drafted. Judging by how that's turned out, it might be wise for Playstation to get in touch with Davenport very soon.