'Dark horse' Demario Davis has been one of NFL's best free-agent signings

Saints linebacker Demario Davis has five sacks through 16 games this season. Derick E. Hingle/USA TODAY Sports

METAIRIE, La. -- Only one player in the NFL has at least 100 tackles, five sacks and 10 quarterback hits this season.

Only one player in the NFL did it last season, too.

In both cases, it was Demario Davis -- even though he switched from playing inside linebacker for the New York Jets to weakside linebacker for the New Orleans Saints.

Maybe it's time for him to stop flying under the radar.

Davis, 29, considers himself a "dark horse" who has never made a Pro Bowl or really enjoyed much of the spotlight in his seven-year career spent with the Jets, Cleveland Browns, Jets again and Saints.

But that could change now that he is finally about to make his playoff debut for the NFC's No. 1 seed.

Davis has been one of the league's best free-agent signings this season on a three-year, $24 million deal. A good argument could be made for No. 1 on that list, considering what he has done for both the Saints' No. 1-ranked run defense and their pass rush.

"Having an opportunity to join a team that's this successful and be on this stage, it's like, 'Man, who is this guy?' Well, he's been there all along. ... But it's been great because it's kept me humble to keep working," said Davis -- who pointed out that other linebackers drafted ahead of him in 2012 such as Luke Kuechly, Bobby Wagner and Lavonte David have always gotten more attention.

"I have tremendous amount of respect for them, but I've always been like the dark horse," said Davis, who was drafted in the third round out of Arkansas State. "If you go back and look at my résumé, my numbers have been there my whole career. Now for the last few years I've figured out how to be more efficient to help my team be more successful."

Davis said the two things that have helped him most were eliminating the negative plays on which he got "exposed" from time to time earlier in his career -- and finally joining a team that was in a position to win big with its version of "Michael Jordan" at quarterback in Drew Brees.

"Man, I've been waiting for this opportunity for so long. Like guys who wait on that opportunity to make that big shot," Davis said. "And now it's here."

Davis leads the Saints with 106 tackles after he ranked sixth in the NFL with 135 for the Jets last season. The 6-foot-2, 248-pounder has five sacks, 11 quarterback hits, 11 tackles for loss, four passes defended, two forced fumbles and a fumble recovery.

He has had a sack in each of the past two games -- and he once again showed off his playmaking instincts by recovering the fumble that secured New Orleans' 31-28 victory against the Pittsburgh Steelers on Sunday.

And perhaps what's most impressive about everything he's doing is that the Saints moved Davis a little out of his comfort zone by switching him to the Will linebacker position this summer after he had spent most of his career at the Mike.

There are some similarities between the positions, and Davis did spend time at Will early in his career. But Davis said it has required an adjustment to spending more time in the open field, matched up one-on-one against tight ends and running backs -- a skill he said he has worked to improve throughout his career.

"We saw him at either of those two roles [when we first signed him]. The question was how much third down he would play. And he's flourished in that area," coach Sean Payton said of Davis, who stays on the field for the Saints on every snap and wears the communication device as the signal-caller and "quarterback" of the defense. "He's a guy that certainly is a good leader for us."

Defensive coordinator Dennis Allen said Davis' physicality in the run game has given them a great presence. He said when the Saints were looking at him in free agency, they knew Davis had the "athletic skill set" to cover running backs and tight ends and do some blitzing. And he also said Davis' intelligence stood out, among other traits, when they had the chance to meet with him.

"We knew that he was our type of guy. We knew that he was a team football player, and he's really fit in nicely to what we've been trying to do with him," Allen said. "He's a guy who loves football. He's a team player and certainly brings an energy level to our football team that's contagious. And so it's just been a really good addition for us."

Saints defensive end Cameron Jordan admitted he knew only a little about Davis before he first laid eyes on "this 6-foot-3, 2 percent-body fat specimen."

"Demario works hard, he studies hard, he plays hard. The type of man he is, the type of player he is just aligns itself," Jordan said. "His ability to not only be a commanding force on the team the way he plays downhill, it's special."

Veteran linebacker Craig Robertson, who said he shares a kinship with Davis as two guys who spent time with the Browns and never made the playoffs before coming to New Orleans, also talked about what a great fit Davis has been.

"He's a film junkie. And he's somebody who takes his job very seriously. It rubs off on everybody [in] the room," Robertson said. "And then he's a guy that's a good father, and he's a son of Christ, and so it makes it easy for young guys to see a man like that and think you know, 'I've gotta put in a little extra.'"

When asked if he is playing the best football of his career, Davis paused for a moment then said, "I would say so."

"I think in the last two years, I've just been able to make amazing leaps year to year, just because of focusing on the details, being better against the run, being better in blitzing and seeing little angles in space, being able to eliminate tight ends and running backs in space. I take all that personal in doing my job," Davis said. "It's been a blessing. It's been a long journey. I just give all the glory to God because it has been a long journey, from my time in New York, my time in Cleveland, and I've just been able to build every step of the process."