Niyo: Off-the-radar pick Jahlani Tavai putting himself on map at Lions camp

John Niyo
The Detroit News

Allen Park — For a moment, it was hard to tell which player was the rookie, and which one was the 10-year veteran at Lions training camp.

There was the burly linebacker sitting in coverage, getting his right hand on a forced throw in the red zone, plucking it out of mid-air and then racing upfield with the interception as his defensive teammates celebrated.

Lions rookie linebacker Jahlani Tavai has spent much of training camp working with the first-team defense.

And there was the quarterback, the last man with an angle to stop the return along the sideline, giving chase and then trying — and failing — to make an arm tackle, his frustration evident as the linebacker shrugged off the attempt.

But that’s what made it so noteworthy, because it was rookie Jahlani Tavai making the play of the day in camp Tuesday, picking off Matthew Stafford and reminding everyone he’s not to be overlooked.

Maybe even reminding himself of that, as the second-round draft choice continues to impress coaches and teammates alike.

“It just builds his confidence,” tight end Logan Thomas said after Tuesday’s practice. “It’s another one of those things where it’s like, ‘All right, I got it.’ It just builds and builds.

“I’m proud of him. Every day, he grows. You can see him take that next step, and the next step, and the next step. So he’s gaining a little bit more confidence in himself and in what he’s supposed to be doing.”

'Unique creature'

In the process, what Tavai is starting to do is to show us why the Lions — from general manager Bob Quinn and his scouts to head coach Matt Patricia and linebackers coach Al Golden — were sold on him prior to the draft.

He'd had a productive career at Hawaii, but after a shoulder injury kept him from the Senior Bowl and the NFL scouting combine, he was "probably off the radar a tiny bit," according to Quinn. But while Tavai might’ve been a surprise selection at No. 43 overall, it sounds as if other teams — Miami, most notably — were ready to pounce in the middle of the second round as well. 

Jahlani Tavai

The 6-foot-2, 250-pounder has taken the bulk of his snaps with the first-team defense thus far in camp, partly due to injuries that have sidelined returning starters Christian Jones and Devon Kennard. But what’s most impressive is how many roles Tavai has filled while on the field, playing inside and out and either stacked at the line or off the ball.

It’s that versatility that most intrigues his coaches at the moment, as Patricia and his staff try to figure out just how many interchangeable pieces they’ve got to torment opposing quarterbacks with this fall.

“In that respect, we see him a lot like Christian,” Golden said of Tavai. “Because Christian’s got enough length and speed to be on the ball or off the ball — and those guys are hard to find. It’s hard to find a linebacker that can cover or zone drop on first down, but on second down can line up on the line of scrimmage. That’s a unique creature. Those are the kind of guys that we’re looking for, and I think Jahlani’s in that mold.”

And in that respect, Tavai is still a rather large lump of clay. For every highlight, there’s also a rookie reminder. Even when matched against another rookie at times, as first-round tight end T.J. Hockenson has beaten him one-on-one for a couple touchdowns early in camp. Tavai won some individual battles with Kerryon Johnson and Zach Zenner in a blitz pickup drill Tuesday, but he also got beat by fullback Nick Bawden on a pass route out of the backfield.

“There’s so much to improve on,” Tavai said. “I know I’ve made a lot of mistakes. But what’s great about practice is you get to learn from those mistakes.”

'He's a grinder'

That’s also what’s good about this position he finds himself in, though, digesting a defense that’s a full-course dinner.

“The more you learn about every position, the more you know about it and you know where your help is — and the more you know, the better,” Tavai said. “And as a first-year guy, you’ve got to know everything, because you don’t want to look like a fool out there.”

Yet at first glance, the criticism of that second-round pick is starting a look a bit more foolish, too. As Tavai put it last week, “Lions don’t lose sleep on opinions of sheep.” And what matters most is what the coaches think. Golden says he has been impressed with Tavai’s command at the line of scrimmage. And as he sees him growing more comfortable by the day, he’s also hearing him “become more audible and more demonstrative.”

His teammates are saying much the same.

“Jahlani, he’s a grinder, man,” linebacker Jarrad Davis said. “He comes to work every single day, very personable guy, great teammate to be around — in the film room, in the locker room, everything. I really like how eager he is to learn and something that I kind of take pride in is really helping him out, because he wants everything that he can get.”

Just what the Lions will get out of him when the regular season kicks off is anyone’s guess at this point. Same goes for next week, when the Patriots are in town and the practice intensity ratchets up a few notches. But while it seems unlikely he’ll beat out Jones for a starting job in Week 1, the idea of Tavai manning the middle and freeing up Davis as a blitzer in certain situations is more than plausible. Beyond that, the depth he adds at a position where it was a glaring deficiency last season is obvious, even a week into camp.

“We’ve got a long way to go with him, and he knows that,” Golden said. “But if we can continue to keep him on the same track and he’s humble enough to learn and grow from those around him, we’re gonna be excited about him moving forward.”

Twitter: @JohnNiyo

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