After the preseason injury to starting linebacker Jarrad Davis, focus drastically shifted to second-round rookie Jahlani Tavai. The linebacker out of Hawaii has faced an uphill climb since joining the team after many believed he was overdrafted by the Lions.
But since the beginning of training camp, Tavai has looked the part. Early on, he was getting second-team reps, and quickly graduated to splitting time with Davis with the starters. By the end of camp, he very clearly had a role with the first-team defense with or without a healthy Davis.
With Davis expected to miss some time at the beginning of the year, Tavai’s role will undoubtedly grow, but the Lions’ coaching staff said on Monday they still plan on taking it slow with the rookie linebacker.
“He’s a rookie so we’re not going to put any undue pressure on a rookie ever,” defensive coordinator Paul Pasqualoni said. “We’ll try to coach him and bring him along, but I’m not going to make any predictions or statements on a guy that just got here a month or six months ago or whatever. This is the NFL. This is hard.”
This was echoed by Tavai’s positional coach, Al Golden.
“We’re not going to put too much on him, we’re just going to let him play,” Golden said on Monday. “He’s a smart young man, so he’ll be able to adapt and he’s doing a good job in practice when he does have to make calls, but he’ll be surrounded by guys that have been out there and have the experience that can just be a calming presence, if you will.”
Despite his injury, Davis figures to be a big part of that calming presence. Golden said that Davis has not changed a bit since his injury and is still an active presence in the film room and remains a leader on the defense.
“He’s already engaged in watching film and talking to the guys about things,” Golden said. “I don’t see that changing and he’ll continue to help us get through it in his absence.”
One of the bigger responsibilities up for grabs is play calling. Typically defenses utilize their middle linebacker as the play caller who has to adjust to pre-snap formations and shifts, but Golden seemed to indicate that responsibility will be split while Davis is out.
“There’s a lot of veterans on the team,” Golden said. “Whether it’s (Quandre) Diggs, or (Tavon) Wilson on the back end maybe making some more calls, or you’ve still got Christian Jones and Jalen (Reeves-Maybin) who have been out there in big games, they can make calls. D.K. (Devon Kennard) can make calls.”
Ultimately, that’s the end goal of this defense: have so many versatile options that when a player goes down, another can seamlessly step in. But it’s not just about one person replacing another.
“It’s not going to just be on one individual, it’s going to be on the collective group to step up and get ready for this opportunity,” Golden said.
Meanwhile, Tavai should benefit from not being overpressured to make the right calls or forced into taking on too many responsibilities. Pasqualoni argued that kind of slow approach could potentially lead to greatness.
“I think with any young guy, you don’t want to throw them to the wolves,” Pasqualoni said. “And in this league—you put someone in before they’re ready or too soon or whatever, you’re setting them up for failure. You’re talking to a guy who redshirted Donovan McNabb and Marvin Harrison.
“Just think about that for a minute. Let me ask you this question. If Donovan McNabb was not redshirted, is he the number two guy in the draft? I don’t know. Maybe not. Maybe not. So taking that more cautious, or slower approach, I think, pays pretty big dividends.”