As Jahlani Tavai enters his second year in the NFL, he knows he has to show some serious improvement from his rookie season. Though 2019 was far from a disaster for the Detroit Lions’ second-round pick, Tavai was thrust into the lineup early and certainly had to go through some growing pains.
“My biggest thing last year was I had a lot of wasted movement,” Tavai admitted on a conference call Wednesday afternoon. “That caused me to miss out on plays.”
There’s always a natural hope that after the chaos of a rookie season—in which players are often overwhelmed by new schemes, higher level of competition and just overall stress—a player naturally makes a Year 2 jump. But Tavai has a secret weapon to make sure that happens this year: veteran linebackers Jamie Collins Sr. and Reggie Ragland.
“Having those vets—you have Jamie, who has played in this defense basically his whole career, and then you have Reggie, who just came off a great season—they bring that wisdom that us younger guys—like second-year, rookies like Julian (Okwara)—they bring that wisdom that we need,” Tavai said. “Just so we can pick up those little things where we can see the bigger picture when we’re on the field.”
Collins, especially, could prove to be a huge mentor for Tavai. Much like Tavai, Collins is a versatile player who has been used in all different spots on the defense—on the edge, in the middle, as a blitzer, in coverage. That appears the be the very same plan the Lions have for Tavai. In the last half of his rookie season, Tavai spent just over half of his snaps at the Mike position, about a quarter of his time at the line of scrimmage and 19 percent of snaps as the team’s will or sam linebacker. In other words, he was all over the place. And that continues to be his goal for 2020.
“Play everywhere, like I did last year,” Tavai said on his goals for this season. “Play on the edge, play inside, know the defense. That’s the biggest thing I wanted to focus on this year. I made sure to set that goal, and so far learning the installs has been great, especially having our (veteran) linebacking group. I’m really happy that we have (linebackers) coach Ty (McKenzie) and the rest of our linebacker corps.”
As for fixing his wasted movement issue from last year? Tavai said Collins is proving to be the perfect example to work off of.
“Just watching the way Jamie plays, if you don’t have to step, he doesn’t step,” Tavai said. “The ball just somehow attracts to him, and that’s just something that I want to adapt to and just get my eyes right so I can become that type of player.”
There’s a quote I’ve often go back to from Matt Patricia over a year ago in regards to Jarrad Davis. He spoke about how Davis had been brought along without the valuable assistance of an experienced linebacker.
“I had that situation before where I brought in a young linebacker, but he sat next to guys that have been in the league, they’re All Pro, Super Bowl champion guys that have been in the league 10, 12 years,” Patricia said. “The knowledge that you get instantly, within a year or two of sitting next to those guys, it’s so valuable, and that’s something that JD hasn’t really had.”
The Lions made a mistake with Jarrad Davis. They aren’t going to make the same mistake with Tavai. And now expectations are immediately higher.
“Our expectation is excellence,” Tavai said. “We want to be the best linebacker group in the league.”