ALLEN PARK, Mich. — Jahlani Tavai was among the worst linebackers in professional football last year. He was especially bad in pass coverage, where he allowed 28 completions on the 32 balls thrown his way.
His coverage ranked 154th among all linebackers who played a snap last year, according to ProFootballFocus. Among linebackers who played at least 200 snaps, only three were worse. Now we might know a big reason why: He weighed as much as 268 pounds, a staggering size for a guy who was on the edge a lot and told to run with running backs and tight ends — and occasionally, receivers — in space.
“I’m just worried about this year right now,” Tavai said. “I’m not even thinking about the past right now, because it’s new goals this year for me.”
One of those new goals: Lose weight. Lose a bunch of weight.
And he has.
Tavai has cut his weight all the way to 247 pounds, which is 21 pounds lighter than his heaviest playing weight just a few months ago. That’s a huge change, and it’s easy to see the difference on the field. Tavai looked considerably slimmer when organized team activities opened, and coaches are raving about the way he’s moving.
“Tavai is looking really, really good right now,” defensive coordinator Aaron Glenn said on Thursday. “He’s moving well, so he’s another guy that’s catching my eye, as far guys that can run.”
Jahlani Tavai? Catching eyes? As a guy who can run? The times really are changing, and that could help the former second-round pick find a place with the new regime.
The old regime loved what Tavai did at Hawaii, and stunned the football world by using the 43rd overall pick on him in the 2019 draft. Almost nobody projected Tavai to go until Day 3, but Matt Patricia craved a big-bodied linebacker for the middle of his defense. Tavai has struggled to live up to that hype, though. He’s missed too many tackles, not made enough big plays, and ranked 80th among the 83 linebackers who played enough snaps to qualify for a grade last year according to PFF.
Now with the coaches who banged the table for him gone, along with the scheme he was supposed to anchor, Tavai’s future has been clouded by uncertainty heading into 2021. Big linebackers who don’t run that well aren’t exactly fits for a lot of modern defenses, and it wasn’t going to work with this one either. So new inside linebackers coach Mark DeLeone called him one day and told him what he needed to do to have a chance.
“We just were chopping it up, and he explained to me what I had to do to be great,” Tavai said. “And I’m trying to be great. I’m trying to be the best Jahlani I can be and to help this team. And the mark is at 245 (pounds), so I’ve still got some room to work. By training camp I’m hoping I’ll be at least at 245, or maybe even under. But yeah, I’m not trying to shy away from any greatness. So once he gave me that marker, I was just like, yep, it’s time to cut down.”
Food for thought
Tavai has been spending his offseason training with noted performance coach Tyler Nunn out in his native Los Angeles. He has cleaned up his diet, including replacing late-night meals with healthy snacks such as peanuts. He’s also cut down on the sweets, as T.J. Hockenson can attest.
“I went to L.A. a few times this offseason and hung out with Jahlani, and he was serious about it,” the tight end said. “I can lose and gain weight pretty easily. Goes on quick, goes away quick. But he’s not one of those guys. One night every few weeks I was out in L.A. and I’d get a little dessert, and Jahlani was like, ‘Nah man, I can’t have that.’ I’m like, ‘C’mon man!’”
Hockenson and Tavai were the headliners of the Lions’ 2019 draft class, and both faced some adversity right out of the gate. Hockenson was even booed by fans at the Lions’ own draft party inside team headquarters.
Of course, Hockenson went on to lead the NFC in receiving yards by a tight end in Year 2 and made the Pro Bowl. Tavai has trended in the other direction, but he might have some life left in Detroit yet. The weight loss will help, and perhaps a change in roles too. The Lions are moving him back to stack linebacker, which is similar to what made him a star back at Hawaii.
“Shoot, I just want to come downhill and make plays,” Tavai said. “That’s it. Linebackers are supposed to be the gamechangers and playmakers, you know? So that’s what they’re trying to help us do. To be honest, I’m just having fun out there literally just playing football like I always do. And it’s just exciting to see everything come together right now. It’s pretty awesome.”
All the usual caveats apply. Yes, it’s May. No, you can’t throw a rock in an NFL building this time of year without hitting someone who is looking good or running fast or in the best shape of his life, according to his coaches. The Lions were just praising Kerryon Johnson the other week, then cut him after the draft. It’s impossible to differentiate between what’s coachspeak and what’s real in the NFL these days, and that applies to Tavai as well.
But on Thursday, the weight loss certainly looked real on the practice fields in Allen Park. Whether that translates to football remains to be seen, but it’s as good of a start as any for Tavai to finally start delivering in Detroit.
“We challenged him as far as the weight that we wanted him to come back at,” Glenn said. “That’s the measure of discipline, when you tell a player, ‘This is what I want you at,’ and you see him come back and he’s there. That’s the first thing. The second thing is his movement. To be as big as he is — he did lose a lot of weight — but to be as big as he is, he can move fairly well. So, that kind of surprised us. And I don’t wanna say totally surprised, but it was good to see a man of that size that can move like that, and then his ability to bend and be able to get out of cuts. That was pretty impressive.
“He was on the edge a lot in this past defense before. We want to put him as a stack ‘backer, allow him to be covered up and allow him to go make plays. And he’s enjoying that. When I talked to him in the offseason, and I told him, ‘I want to get everything out of you that I can. I can’t promise you anything. I can’t promise you a starting job right, but I can promise you a chance to compete, and that’s all I can give you. But you have to do the rest.’ And he’s like, ‘Coach, I like it.’ And that’s what we’re gonna give him a chance to do.”
Meinke writes for mlive.com