In the 2019 NFL Draft, the Detroit Lions and general manager Bob Quinn surprised many in the second round with the selection of linebacker Jahlani Tavai.
With the No. 43 overall pick, Quinn pulled the trigger on the Hawaii product that few non-diehard draft followers knew much about.
Even most of the national draft media was caught a bit off guard -- let alone the Detroit fanbase.
Collectively, it was Quinn’s most criticized selection that year, and that was even with them drafting a tight end in the top 10 in the form of T.J. Hockenson.
As always, once a player is taken, time is needed to truly evaluate what he can do on the NFL field.
Unfortunately, there are not too many successful linebackers in the NFL with Tavai’s athletic limitations.
After a shoulder injury kept Tavai from participating at the NFL combine, Tavai weighed in at 246 pounds, and clocked in with a time in the mid-4.8s for his 40-yard dash at his pro day.
Considering Lions head coach Matt Patricia’s affinity for big, versatile linebackers, the fit made perfect sense.
Even Quinn mentioned after the draft how a linebacker with Tavai’s size, wingspan and ability to play on the edge and off the ball doesn’t come through the draft very often.
However, that’s not to say there weren't plenty of other high-potential options still left on the board.
Drafting solely on specific schematic matches over pure talent is inherently flawed.
Looking back, it was difficult to find Tavai grading higher than a handful of players selected after him.
With higher-profile names with first-round buzz still available -- like cornerback Greedy Williams and wide receivers DK Metcalf and A.J. Brown -- it was fair to say the Lions reached.
It was entirely possible that Tavai would still have been selected in the second round if the Lions didn't nab him.
However, there just aren't many defenses in the NFL that covet big and slow, yet somewhat versatile linebackers.
Athleticism is en vogue right now -- and basically is a prerequisite for most teams.
Now, in year two of Tavai’s career, he sure looks closer to a bust, relative to his draft status, than to a quality player in today’s NFL.
Linebacker seems to be one of the few positions where you either have it or you don’t from the start.
There are exceptions, but it usually doesn’t take long to see if a linebacker can make a big impact.
In Tavai’s rookie season, there were some flashes of optimism.
In 2020, the flashes have been mostly of the negative sorts.
According to Pro Football Focus, Tavai is the fourth-worst linebacker of the 88 qualified players at the position.
His missed-tackling woes and difficulty operating in space have followed him to the NFL level.
Despite what seems obvious on film, Patricia still pointed out some of the positives regarding Tavai in his Monday video conference.
“He’s (Jahlani Tavai) played a little bit more, a little bit inside, a little bit on the edge. But, I would say his football recognition is really good," Patricia said. “We have to be a little bit more consistent with some of the things that he’s doing out on the field. But, he does a good job of communicating and adjusting some of the different looks that we see. But, in general, coming out of a game like yesterday, you know, everybody wants to play better. We just want to get better overall.”
At this point, only a year and a half into Tavai's career, it's very difficult to call him a bust. Things could still change.
So far, there doesn't appear to be many indications Tavai will magically turn his play around.
His flaws are too apparent and difficult to mask.
The drafting of Tavai definitely felt like one of those “smartest man in the room” moves.
It looks like the Lions were a little too smart for their own good.
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