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Dan Campbell’s breakdown of Lions LBs hints at Jahlani Tavai being a poor fit in new scheme

Tavai is the square peg in the Lions round hole defense .

Minnesota Vikings v Detroit Lions - NFL Football Game Photo by Jorge Lemus/NurPhoto via Getty Images

Detroit Lions coach Dan Campbell met with the media earlier Monday, and he discussed a variety of topics, including sharing his thoughts on the team's current off-the-ball linebacker group.

“I like what we’ve got going on,” Campbell said. “Jamie (Collins Sr.) is a versatile guy. He really gives us a guy that can do a little bit of everything. I mean, he can cover, he can rush, he can play in the stack, he can be a green dot making all the calls. He does give us versatility in that regard.”

Collins, who recently restructured his contract to assist the Lions in gaining salary cap space, is the presumed leader of the group and appears headed for the MIKE linebacker role.

“When you add (Alex) Anzalone to that,” Campbell continued, “we know what he is. He’s an athletic, big, long linebacker that can run. He’s a smart guy, he’s a steady guy. “

This morning, I expanded more on where I think Anzalone fits in the Lions' new defensive scheme, with the biggest takeaway being that he will likely start off-the-ball next to Collins. His role will likely keep him on the field 50-75 percent of the time with his primary responsibility being in coverage situations.

Next, Campbell addressed some of the reserves and what they bring to the table.

“And then just the addition of (Jalen) Reeves-Maybin,” Campbel said. “Man, that guy, there again, we were excited to get him back because we know what he can do from a level on special teams for us. He’s really a four-quarter guy. He plays hard, he’s smart. You can watch him on tape. I mean, we went back and watched him in 2019 when he played at linebacker quite a bit. So he comes in, there’s no telling. You never know what you have in this player. We haven’t told anybody anything other than an opportunity, so he comes in here and we’ll give him a chance to compete.“

Reeves-Maybin has been a special teams demon throughout his career, but he never really fit Matt Patricia’s scheme and therefore rarely saw the field on defense. This scheme relies on athleticism and suits Reeves-Maybin’s skill set much better. At this time, Reeves-Maybin is likely third in line for an off-the-ball spot and is capable of giving Collins and Anzalone rest reps.

“Shaun Dion Hamilton,” Campbell continued, “that’s another one that was really claimed off waivers when I got here. I mean, that was done before we even got here. But I think he’s a pleasant surprise to have on this roster. I know he can play special teams, but let him get in there and mix it up.”

Dion Hamilton has only played on defense 627 snaps over his three years in Washington, but he has flashed as a coverage linebacker, registering an 89.7 coverage grade from PFF in 2019 on 187 coverage snaps. At this time, Dion Hamilton is well suited to backup Anzalone in his coverage role.

Then came the awkward part of Campbell's breakdown:

“Obviously, we’ve got (Jahlani) Tavai, he’s another one that was a part of this draft class couple of years ago.”

Yup, that’s the whole quote.

Now, it’s important not to read too much into a press conference in March, but the fact that Tavai was almost an afterthought to Campbell is pretty telling. This also shouldn't be too surprising either, as he is custom-built for the previous scheme, but is not as athletic as the linebackers general manager Brad Holmes has targeted in the past or present.

While Collins, Anzalone, Reeves-Maybin, and Dion Hamiltion have clear fits with the Lions’ new scheme, Tavai doesn't have a clear role. Is he capable of staying at the MIKE and backing up Collins? That’s a tough sell with the range needed from the MIKE in this scheme. How about competing with Anzalone? Per PFF, Tavai was sent in coverage 259 times in 2020 and finished the season with a 35.7 coverage grade. Yikes.

The best bet for Tavai to stick on the Lions roster may be to shift from an off-the-ball role to one on the line of scrimmage—he was a decent pass rusher in college—but once again, this scheme prioritizes athleticism here as well. In the end, no matter where you look, there’s not an easily identifiable role for Tavai.

The Lions aren’t done adding to their off-the-ball linebacker position group, Campbell even said as much in his evaluation, but the consistent theme is the Lions are targeting athletes who can cover.