When the Detroit Lions announced that one of their major roster goals was to simply get faster—especially on defense—it was impossible not to think about the future of young linebacker Jahlani Tavai. Detroit’s 2019 second-round pick, Tavai had a somewhat promising rookie season, but truly struggled last year after assuming a full-time role. The major criticism of Tavai’s game: lack of sideline-to-sideline speed. At 250 pounds with just 4.86 in the 40-yard dash, Tavai just doesn’t seem like the kind of player that has a role in Aaron Glenn’s speed-focused defense.
When head coach Dan Campbell mentioned Tavai as an afterthought when talking up his linebacking corps, it seemed like the writing was on the wall for him.
However, new linebackers coach Mark DeLeone has gotten his first look at Tavai in the team facility this week, and he came away encouraged by the 25-year-old linebacker.
“I’ve been really impressed with Jahlani,” DeLeone told reporters on Thursday. “He’s been here, he’s been doing a great job. He’s in really good shape right now, and I’m excited to work with him. I’m excited to get to OTAs and to be able to continue with him, because I’m really excited about him.”
This offseason, if Tavai’s Instagram is any indication, the young linebacker is doing his best to trim down and improve his athleticism. Some videos have spread across Lions fandom showing what appears to be a significantly trimmed-down Tavai.
Jahlani Tavai gonna show up to camp at 235-240 pic.twitter.com/coG5wM4qJE— Chris Salts (@ChrisSalts) May 7, 2021
DeLeone wouldn’t confirm or deny that Tavai has lost weight to better fit the scheme, saying he wasn’t here last year to use that as a frame of reference. However, he did specifically say that Tavai has a place in this scheme.
“I can just tell you when he was out on the field this week, he’s been doing well and I really enjoyed working with him so far. He has a really good understanding of the game. I think he’s gonna be a nice piece for us to work with in this scheme.”
Of course, this could all simply be coachspeak. DeLeone isn’t going to trash one of his players in his first presser with local media. Detroit’s offseason additions of Alex Anzalone and Derrick Barnes certainly seem to suggest the Lions were looking to upgrade the position.
Tavai seems to have made a good first impression with the staff, though, and that’s a start. It will be a long road through OTAs and training camp for Tavai to prove his worth to a new coaching staff, but it may be a bit premature to count him out completely.