Allen Park — If Detroit Lions defensive coordinator Paul Pasqualoni has his way, the team is going to take it nice and slow with rookie linebacker Jahlani Tavai.
The second-round pick out of Hawaii saw extensive work in the first three preseason games, but Pasqualoni doesn't want to lean too heavily on the rookie at the start of the regular season, even if starting middle linebacker Jarrad Davis is too injured to play Week 1 against the Arizona Cardinals.
"Well, he's a rookie and we're not going to put any undue pressure on a rookie ever," Pasqualoni said. "We'll try to coach him and bring him along. I'm not going to make any predictions or statements on a guy that just got here six months ago. It's the NFL, this is hard."
Most teams prefer to ease rookies into playing time, but sometimes aren't in position to do so. The Lions' past three first-round picks — Taylor Decker, Davis and Frank Ragnow — were all thrust into immediate starting roles. And this year's first-rounder, tight end T.J. Hockenson, also figures to be featured prominently out the gate.
But when the Lions have been able to do it, they've taken the cautious approach, building up a first-year player's workload, to mixed results. With cornerback Teez Tabor, a second-round pick in 2017, It never clicked. He was released this weekend after two disappointing seasons. But safety Tracy Walker, a third-round selection in 2018, is on the cusp of a breakout season after thriving in a limited role as a rookie last year.
For Pasqualoni, Walker's situation is a model worth repeating. That's a philosophy the coach has long had, dating back to his time as the head coach of Syracuse.
"I think with any young guy, you don't want to throw him to the wolves," Pasqualoni said. "In this league, if you put somebody in before they're ready, too soon or whatever, you're setting a guy up for failure.
"You're talking to a guy that redshirted Donovan McNabb and Marvin Harrison. I've redshirted Hall of Fame players. Just think about that for a minute. Let me ask you this question, just on Donovan McNabb. If Donovan McNabb was not redshirted, is he the No. 2 guy in the draft? I don't know. Maybe not."
While at Syracuse, Pasqualoni could recall only two players he played extensively their first years with the program — defensive end Dwight Freeney and fullback Rob Konrad. In those cases, those two players exhibited unusual maturity to handle everything, both on and off the field.
Even with his sons Daunte, who plays lacrosse at Bryant, and Tito, a tight end at Boston College, Pasqualoni asked for both to be redshirted by their respective coaches. "I think for most guys, most people, having the chance to ease into it is really the best way," Pasqualoni said. "Build them up, don't tear them down type of thing. We've got some good young players and hopefully you're in a situation where you can do that."
In 2018, Walker averaged 17 snaps per game. While he plays a different position than Tavai, it offers a useful framework for the rookie's expectations.