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2019 NFL Draft profile: Detroit Lions linebacker Jahlani Tavai film breakdown

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Let’s dig deep into the Lions’ second round pick that came as a surprise to many.

NCAA Football: Hawaii at Air Force Isaiah J. Downing-USA TODAY Sports

Ask any Detroit Lions fan how they felt about Jahlani Tavai before the draft, and most would probably stare back at you with a blank look on their face. Tavai was not a popular name linked to the Lions in the second round, and many draft outlets had him going at least a round or two later. So you can imagine the outrage among a sizable portion of the fanbase when the Lions essentially drafted a player in the second round that they had never heard of.

A similar instance happened with Tracy Walker being selected in the third round last year. What I’ve learned most about Bob Quinn’s tenure in Detroit is that he’s locked into his guys and his board, which means he doesn’t give a crap about what you or I think. And I kind of love that about him.

I didn’t love the T.J. Hockenson pick at eighth overall, but guess what, if you don’t take a top tight end prospect in the first few rounds of the draft, then in most cases, you’ve essentially done nothing to fill that need. So instead of risking waiting another year, he got his guy and decided to improve the position.

“(Linebacker) was a position we wanted to address. So like I said, not giving you every detail of what our draft board looks like, but linebackers that play in this defense that are very, very good natural fits – there’s only a couple every year. You wait a year, you don’t get one, you might not get him next year, you might not get him the year after. This guy was a guy we had targeted as early as October.”

The same goes for linebacker. Quinn has stated that in each draft, there are very few natural fits at LB for this defense. While that is a bit worrisome to hear, he decided to go out and get his guy rather than waiting another year to upgrade the linebacker unit.

Now let’s take a deeper dive into the Lions’ second round pick, linebacker Jahlani Tavai.

Production

Source: sports-reference.com

Tavai put up monster numbers for Hawaii, totaling 390 tackles (334 in his last three years) over the course of his career. It’s also important to note that Tavai had two punts as a freshman and averaged 54 yards per punt. PUNTER CONTROVERSY?

Film

Athleticism

Let’s start with the not-so-great and work our way into the good. Jahlani Tavai’s limited athleticism has been well-advertised, and some of those concerns are certainly warranted. He lacks top-end speed. While elite athletes can afford to make a mistake and recover, if Tavai wants to beat the ball carrier to the sideline, he essentially has to be mistake-free.

There were several instances where Tavai was unable to get to the sideline, which led to a big gain. You can point out that it’s a receiver and that it’s a tough ask for any linebacker, but receivers aren’t going to see that you’re a linebacker and decide to slow down for you. You simply have to make that play and Tavai doesn’t often show the ability to recover after a big stumble or a poor angle taken.

But when Tavai reads and reacts to the play correctly, he can get there in a hurry.

Physicality and run defense

On the positive side, the thing that jumps out at you right away when watching Jahlani Tavai play football is how big and how physically imposing he is.

Here, Tavai fills his gap, stonewalls the ball carrier and throws him into the ground for added effects. As a former Rugby player, Tavai was taught to wrap up with good form, and when he’s got his arms around you, it’s game over.

Tavai’s mean streak on the field is a characteristic that some will frown upon and immediately point out that this could be a 15-yard penalty, but honestly, I love it. We’ve seen Jarrad Davis punish offenses with his physicality and his signature suplex. Now just imagine running into the heart of the Detroit Lions defense consisting of Snacks Harrison, A’Shawn Robinson and Da’Shawn Hand, barely slipping through with your limbs intact, only to meet the death trap that is Jarrad Davis and Jahlani Tavai.

As a run defender, Tavai’s mental processing skills are on another level. He reads his keys well and has a knack for understanding where the play is going to go, often resulting in him being the first defender to the ball carrier—hence the insane tackle production. For what Tavai lacks in athleticism, he makes up for with his instincts and initial burst.

One thing to consider, however, is the amount of missed tackles Tavai accumulated over the years (49 career missed tackles).

Can he cover?

Having linebackers that can play all three downs is a necessity in today’s NFL. There have been some concerns about Tavai’s ability (or inability) to stay on the field in third-down/passing situations, but while I don’t see coverage being his bread and butter, I do believe Tavai is plenty capable of handling coverage duties.

Tavai was rarely asked to line up in man-to-man coverage, but held up his end of the bargain when given the chance. Here, Tavai looks sluggish with his backpedal, but is able to smoothly transition and explode up the seam on his hip turn. He does an admirable job of staying with Josh Oliver, one of the top tight ends in the 2019 class that was selected less than a round after Tavai and ran an impressive 4.63 40-yard dash (83rd percentile among all tight ends).

On second-and-9, Wyoming runs a play-action and the QB’s first read, the tight end, does a solid job of selling the run and goes for the pull-rip combo to disengage. Tavai puts himself in position, sets the edge in case of a run and is unphased by the TE’s best efforts at getting open.

Tavai might not have the top end speed to hang with speedier skill players while running in a straight line, but his hips are as smooth as can be, and he’s much, much more explosive than I expected.

When you couple Tavai’s fluidity with his instincts, then you’re treated to plays like these. In coverage, Tavai is much better suited and more comfortable in zone. He has a great understanding of routes developing in front of him and should be put in a spot where he can use his football IQ and lateral agility to his advantage. The more I watch of Tavai, the more I see that the Lions are getting their own version of Dont’a Hightower.

Pass rush versatility

Like Hightower with the Patriots, Tavai is a versatile piece and will likely spend some time near the defensive line as a pass rusher. I was actually pleasantly surprised to see Tavai showcasing some very nice traits in this area.

While rushing the passer, Tavai does a very good job of timing the snap when directly on the line of scrimmage and has impressive explosiveness. He could still use some work with his hands developing some actual pass rush moves, but his raw power and strong hands often gave Mountain West competition fits.

Games watched: 2016 vs. MTSU, 2017 vs. BYU, 2017 vs. Wyoming, 2017 vs. Nevada, 2018 vs. Wyoming, 2018 vs. San Jose State, 2018 vs. BYU, 2018 vs. Army, 2018 vs. Navy

Fit and outlook for 2019

Jahlani Tavai is a great fit for Patricia’s multiple defense. He is a versatile linebacker that excels in the run game, but is also capable of dropping back into coverage and rushing the passer, much like Dont’a Hightower for the Patriots.

I’m expecting to see Tavai contribute very early on as a rookie, perhaps wrestling away a starting spot from Christian Jones at some point in the year and taking away some pass rushing snaps from Devon Kennard. Though I still don’t love the value of the pick at 43rd overall, Tavai is a necessary part of the puzzle that head coach Matt Patricia is trying to piece together for this defense.