Detroit Lions: Will Jahlani Tavai boom or bust this summer?

Jahlani Tavai, Detroit Lions (Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images)
Jahlani Tavai, Detroit Lions (Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images) /

Anytime an NFL team goes through a regime change, you have to expect some major moves to be made within the entire organization. For the Detroit Lions this offseason, the number of changes have been massive. And there are many more to come.

A new front office and a new coaching staff in Motown have led to several roster changes. The biggest of which has been under center following a trade that sent longtime quarterback Matthew Stafford out west to the Los Angeles Rams for two-time Pro Bowl passer Jared Goff and a bounty of draft picks.

Gone are veterans like wide receivers Kenny Golladay and Marvin Jones Jr., linebacker Jarrad Davis, cornerback Justin Coleman, and several others. And the new regime in Detroit, led by general manager Brad Holmes and head coach Dan Campbell, are far from done turning over this roster.

Expect that list of former players to only get longer following final cuts post-training camp and following the preseason. One of those cut casualties might be the Lions’ second-round selection in the 2019 NFL Draft, linebacker Jahlani Tavai.

Here is what ESPN’s Eric Woodyard wrote after identifying Tavai as a veteran in danger this summer in an article titled NFL players on the roster bubble entering 2021 training camp.

"“It might seem like an oxymoron, but the same guy who was one of the biggest surprises of Lions minicamp could also be on the roster bubble … Tavai cut nearly 20 pounds this offseason is that he knew he had to come in with a different approach. He wasn’t drafted by the new regime, and it’s understood that Tavai hasn’t played great in his first couple of seasons, so this could be his last chance to showcase his ability to the new staff.”"

Tavai was drafted by the Lions’ previous regime headed by former general manager Bob Quinn to specifically fit then-head coach Matt Patricia’s defensive scheme. That scheme seemed to favor size over speed. That resulted in the Lions reaching for the 6-foot-2, 250-pound Tavai with the 43rd overall selection in 2019.

Coming out of college, draft analyst Lance Zierlein projected Tavai to be a Day Three selection (Rounds 4-5) due to his lack of explosion and average top speed. And while the young linebacker flashed potential as a rookie, a down sophomore season in Detroit combined with the hiring of an all-new coaching staff places the 24-year old squarely on the roster bubble this summer.

Despite playing in more games, getting more starts, and playing more snaps, Tavai posted near-identical numbers between his first and second seasons in Detroit. He recorded 58 total tackles, five tackles for loss, 2.0 sacks, and an interception with only six starts as a rookie in 2019. Last year, Tavai posted the exact same number of tackles (58), two tackles for loss, and forced two fumbles in 10 starts.

Despite getting more playing time, Tavai’s level of play got significantly worse according to Pro Football Focus. The football analytic website ranked him the 96th best linebacker in the NFL last season out of 99 qualifiers with an overall grade of 32.1. That was nearly a 30-point drop from his PFF overall rookie score of 61.6.

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After approaching 270 pounds last season, Tavai has been dropping weight in an attempt to add the speed that the new coaching staff in Detroit covets at the position. His plan is to be around 245-pounds or less once training camp kicks off. As a result, there’s still a chance the young linebacker can salvage his career in the Motor City this summer.