What NFL insiders are saying about new Detroit Lions LB Jahlani Tavai

Dave Birkett
Detroit Free Press
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I didn't know a thing about Jahlani Tavai before the Detroit Lions took him with the 43rd overall pick of the 2019 NFL draft Friday, and judging by the reaction on Twitter, not many fans did, either.

So after the Lions made Tavai the surprise pick of the second round, I reached out to a couple of talent evaluators I trust to get their opinions on the Hawaii linebacker. As it turns out, maybe Tavai wasn't that big of a surprise after all.

One scout with an AFC team said he had Tavai graded as a clear Day 3 pick, while another with an NFC team said the Lions took Tavai "a little early" for his taste.

Hawaii linebacker Jahlani Tavai.

But the general feedback I got from the four scouts I surveyed was positive, with one saying he did not think Tavai would have made it to Day 3 — and might not have made it to the third round — had the Lions not grabbed him when they did.

Tavai was a tackling machine at Hawaii, where he averaged more than 10 stops a game last season.

He's big — he said in a conference call with Detroit reporters he weighs 250 pounds — and smart and aggressive, and there weren't many highly-rated big linebackers in this draft.

The Lions had an obvious need at the position. They return all three starters from last year in Jarrad Davis, Christian Jones and Devon Kennard, but have little depth behind that. 

Backups Steve Longa and Jalen Reeves-Maybin are both coming off season-ending injuries, and neither has the size coach Matt Patricia likes at linebacker.

Tavai does, and has the versatility Patricia values.

At Hawaii, Tavai played outside linebacker as a freshman and middle linebacker the last three years. He had 5½ sacks as a junior, and was on his way to a third straight 100-tackle season last season before a shoulder injury sent him to the operating table.

That procedure kept Tavai from doing testing drills at the NFL combine and his pro day, and perhaps that's why he was somewhat under the radar entering the draft.

Hawaii linebacker Jahlani Tavai talks to the media during the NFL combine at Indianapolis Convention Center, March 2.

But while Tavai was not rated highly by media types — he wasn't even listed in Athlon's draft preview guide at the inside linebacker position — he was well known in the NFL community. One scout told me that had the Lions passed on Tavai, he probably would have ended up with the New England Patriots at some point Friday.

So what does all that mean? Well, as with any prospect, beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and Tavai had at least one team who thought he was pageant material — the Lions, who took him over several other notable prospects at positions of need, including LSU cornerback Greedy Williams and Michigan State cornerback Justin Layne.

Tavai, a star rugby player in high school who traveled the world with the U.S. National under-18 rugby team, told Detroit reporters he was bracing for a wide range of outcomes in the draft.

"What my agent was telling me was either Day 2 or Day 3, so really I was just — I wasn’t really sure so I was just waiting for a phone call within those rounds," he said. "Right now I’m just really happy and really thankful for the opportunity that Coach Patricia and the Lions staff gave me right now. So really excited."

Tavai declined to shed any light on a nightclub incident from last June that reportedly got him arrested for assaulting a man — allegedly after the man pushed a woman to the ground.

He did say his injured shoulder is "doing great," and he's "juiced up" to play in the Lions defense.

How soon that is remains to be seen, and how he does when he gets there ultimately will determine whether the Lions were right in their evaluation of a prospect who few fans even knew the name of before Friday.

More:Who is Jahlani Tavai? A look at the Lions' 2nd-round NFL draft pick

Contact Dave Birkett at Follow him on Twitter @davebirkett. Read more on the Detroit Lions and sign up for our Lions newsletter.


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