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Young Lion: Jahlani Tavai

Detroit Lions fans didn’t exactly roar with approval when the team drafted Jahlani Tavai in the second round of last year’s NFL Draft. In fact, many of the fan reactions were downright catty:

“Umm, wut?”


“Front office don’t want the Lions to win!!!!”

“That’s not a good pick. At all.”

“Glad global warming is a thing because I’m going to have to warm up to this pick.”

“Same ol’ Lions.”

For his part, Tavai ignored the naysayers. Instead, the former University of Hawaii standout simply rolled up his sleeves and went to work.

The results were mostly positive. Tavai put up some solid numbers in his rookie season: 58 total tackles, 2 sacks, 1 forced fumble and 1 interception in 15 games while playing just over 52 percent of the team’s defensive snaps. Like most rookies, however, the 6-2, 250-lb. middle linebacker struggled at times. Overall, the Lions’ linebackers unit, and the defense as a whole, underperformed, and Detroit finished the 2019 season a woeful 3-12-1 – last in the NFC North.

Wrote Benjamin Raven of Mlive.com: “Tavai was a bright spot on the radar as a rookie asked to step into a vital role in a sophisticated defense. He started hot with a sack, 10 tackles and a forced fumble in his first two games before falling into a rotation. The big rookie’s playing time was up and down each week, while he seemed to click most in the 35-40 snaps per game territory. Tavai was Detroit’s most well-rounded linebacker per PFF before landing on IR himself in Week 16. He even showed off his improved coverage skills when making an excellent read across the middle of the field to intercept a pass from Tampa Bay’s Jameis Winston. It was the type of play that instills confidence in a young player, and represented what the team was missing for most of the season.”

Max Gerber of LionsWire asserted that, much like Tavai’s time as a Rainbow Warrior, Tavai was better suited to rush the quarterback and stifle the opponents’ running game than defend passing plays.

“Like the rest of Detroit’s linebackers, Tavai struggled to cover both tight ends and running backs in the middle of the field,” Gerber opined. “He allowed nearly 70-percent of the passes that came his way to be completed throughout the season. On the bright side, the rookie is entering his second year as a pro without allowing a touchdown. The rookie did show some flashes of potential as both a run defender and a pass rusher. He is credited with four pressures and a hurry in his 23 blitzes, along with three quarterback hits. He also logged five tackles for a loss during his rookie season.”

One observer feels that Tavai’s deficiencies in pass coverage may hinder his ability to become a fixture in Detroit’s starting lineup.

“I don’t think he’s the solution at LB1,” wrote SB Nation beat writer Hamza Baccouche. “The reality of the situation is he’s more of a downhill runner than sideline-to-sideline, meaning he struggles in coverage, especially in the case of scramble drills.”

Still, Tavai showed enough promise last season to give the Lions hope that he could be an effective player for years to come. Tavai, who is scheduled to make just over $1.5 million this season, simply needs more experience and game reps.

“One of the main jobs of the MIKE [linebacker] is to wear the ‘green dot’ helmet and relay in the defensive play calls,” wrote Erik Schmitt of LionsWire. “During Jarrad Davis’ first three seasons in the league that was his responsibility, but last year the Lions expanded that job to other players including Tavai. The Lions typically allow their day two draft picks to slowly acclimate to the league during their rookie season — Tavai was a second-round pick in 2019 — and by year two they take on a much larger role. With Davis in a contract year, expect to see Tavai wear the green dot helmet quite a bit in 2020.”

Here are some highlights of Tavai’s rookie season in Detroit:

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