David Mayo signed with the New York Giants on Sept. 2, taking the roster spot vacated when B.J. Goodson was traded to the Green Bay Packers. He figured to be what he had been for four seasons with the Carolina Panthers, a top-notch special teams player and a guy who played a little bit of linebacker in emergencies.
Then, the injury dominoes started to fall. In Week 3 against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers Tae Davis suffered a concussion and Alec Ogletree pulled a hamstring. It was emergency time and Mayo was on the field for seven defensive snaps.
In Week 4, Mayo started and played 34 snaps. Ryan Connelly blew out his his knee in that game and Mayo has played 65 and 57 snaps the past two games.
Mayo has 29 tackles, a half-sack and a quarterback hit in those three games. His Pro Football Focus run defense grade third-highest on the Giants behind Dexter Lawrence and Grant Haley.
Defensive coordinator James Bettcher quickly gained an appreciation for the 26-year-old Mayo.
“The first thing that was like instant respect was he gets here and a week and a half later he goes in at ‘backer and he’s ready, he knows the package, he executes, he makes pretty big plays for us in the game,” Bettcher told Big Blue View.
“Instantly, if you’re a coach and you’ve got a guy that’s a backup player, a role player when they come in the door and all of a sudden that role changes because of an injury and they know what to do, how to do and when to do the amount of respect and trust you have for those guys are instant and they grow.
“That’s the first thing. Then just for me is he’s tough. He’s tough. He loves the game. You watch him at practice. He fits right in with our guys running around trying to play fast and trying to play physical.”
No one could ever doubt Mayo’s commitment
Ignored by Division I schools coming out of high school, he enrolled at a junior college. He spent part of that time living in a 10-foot by 15-foot shed. After junior college he was still mostly ignored by the big schools and ended up at Texas State, which was transitioning from FCS to FBS.
The Carolina Panthers, with Dave Gettleman as general manager, selected Mayo in the fifth round of the 2015 NFL Draft after he was second in the nation the previous season in tackles per game.
With a linebacker group in Carolina led by Luke Kuechly and Thomas Davis, Mayo barely played. He played a career-high 143 snaps a season ago, when he earned three of the four starts he made in Carolina.
“It’s hard for any linebacker to crack the starting lineup when you run a 4-3 defense and have Luke Kuechly, Thomas Davis and Shaq Thompson on the roster,” Bradley Smith of SB Nation’s Cat Scratch Reader, which covers the Panthers, told me. “Mayo was just the fourth guy with three stud players ahead of him and we always felt that he could probably start for most teams. He played well when he filled in for one of the other three when they had to miss time due to injuries, etc.
“I’m not surprised that he’s playing well. I always thought he would be good enough to start if it wasn’t for the fact that he had three of the best linebackers in the league ahead of him on the depth chart.”
Mayo had no regrets about his lack of opportunity with the Panthers.
“I think it was great for my career being in Carolina learning from those guys. Luke is outstanding. Thomas Davis same thing,” said Mayo, who also mentioned Ben Jacobs and A.J. Klein as being influential while with the Panthers. “They taught me how to be a pro. How to work at this business, how to study. They also taught me that you’ve got to go out with the right energy every day to practice and you’ve gotta perform.”
Just a special teams player?
Looking for a new opportunity, Mayo signed with the San Francisco 49ers during the offseason. He ended up not making the roster. He signed with the Giants, where Gettleman is of course now the GM. Special teams coordinator Thomas McGaughey also was very familiar with Mayo.
“It makes sense, right? There’s a few guys who I know here,” Mayo said. “I think they knew what they had in me, so it kinda made sense.”
Even with Gettleman and McGaughey knowing him, though, there was no guarantee he was ever going to be more than a special teams player.
“I’ve always been trying to get to this point but I think no matter what I do I’m going to give it my all,” Mayo told me. “If it’s a backup role then that’s what I’m going to do. Most of my career has been special teams and a backup role and I just try to be the best I can be. I try to be the best special teams player I can be and I just try to improve every day.
“I think that’s the mentality you have to have in this league if you want to make a career out of it.”
Ready or not, Mayo’s opportunity arrived when the aforementioned injuries decimated the position.
Mayo admitted that playing a major role so quickly without the benefit of an offseason or a training camp to really learn the defensive scheme was not ideal.
“Of course it’s difficult. But the coaches have done a great job helping me learn this defense quick. Everyone in this business knows you just never know what can happen. It’s a long season so everyone’s gotta be ready. Even if you’re a practice squad guy you’ve gotta be read because you never know,” Mayo said.
“We had three injuries and there it is. It happened early. Even though I came to a new team and I didn’t go through training camp you have to get in the books, you have to jump on it because you never know.”
Mayo’s opportunity knocked, and he has answered with three straight quality efforts.
“You just never know. You’ve just gotta keep working,” Mayo said. “I’ve seen it. You be in this league long enough you see guys come up, they pull guys off practice squad, they sign them from other teams. You just never know who’s going to be playing at what point in the season. Big-time game. Early in the season. Late in the season for a playoff push. You just never know.”