Quinn: Jahlani Tavai Rare LB That Fits Our Defense -- So We Moved Early

"It’s just something where these guys are hard to find." 

Will Burchfield
April 27, 2019 - 1:06 am

Jahlani Tavai was a projected day-three pick in the NFL Draft, as late as the sixth round. 

So what were the Lions thinking when they took him in the second round Friday night?

They were prioritizing a player who fits their defense, said general manager Bob Quinn. And they were getting him when they had the chance, whether or not they could have gotten him later. 

Tavai is a big, versatile linebacker who meshes with what Matt Patricia and the Lions are looking for at that position. 

"It was a position we wanted to address," said Quinn. "Linebackers that play in this defense that are very good natural fits, there’s only a couple (in the draft) every year. You wait a year, you don’t get one, you might not get him next year, you might not get him the year after. This guy was a guy we had targeted as early as October." 

Though Tavai wasn't seen as a potential second-round pick, Quinn said the Lions weren't the only team in on him. Based on the research they do of the rest of the NFL prior to the draft -- which teams brought in which players, which needs apply to which teams -- they sensed interest in Tavai was heating up. 

And they weren't willing to risk waiting beyond the 43rd overall pick. 

"Really excited that he was there," said Quinn. "There was a lot of interest in him around our pick. We kind of held on there for about four or five picks, not knowing if he was going be there. Felt good about that." 

So, what exactly do the Lions like so much about Tavai? For starters, he's 6'2, 250 lbs. and has the wingspan of a player several inches taller. And he proved in four seasons at Hawaii that he can do just about everything at the linebacker position, from rushing the passer to covering in space to stopping the run. 

That stands to make him an asset in Patricia's defense, where linebackers play a variety of roles. 

"You see him on the film play on the edge, you see him set the edge, you see him rush the passer and then two snaps later, he’s playing Mike bubble linebacker coming downhill and smashing a guard," Quinn said. "There’s guys that can do that in the draft, (but) every year there’s a very select few guys that you can actually see them do it on film."

Tavai joins a core of linebackers that already features Jarrad Davis, Devon Kennard and Christian Jones. In an injury-shortened season as a senior, he totaled 82 tackles in eight games. He also had 17.5 sacks in 47 career games. 

His speed is a question mark, but he certainly has the physicality the Lions covet. 

"We like thick, built linebackers. Really thick guys that can take on blocks, but when they play on the edge they have enough playing strength and enough arm length to set the edge," said Quinn. He can go out there against a good tight end and hold the edge of the defense, which is crucial. Then you see him play off the ball. You can play him like J.D. or Christian, and that’s the versatility.

"His wingspan is as as big as some of the guys who are 6'4, 6'5. He has a really wide back, his arms are of average or to above average length. It’s just something where these guys are hard to find." 

Tavai played primarily Mike linebacker in college, which is where he said he expects to start with the Lions. But he won't stay there, not on every play. And that's just fine for Tavai.

"I love their defense because you never know what they’re running in," he said. "From the film that I’ve watched, they stunt a lot. I love that they bring pressure on the quarterback a lot. That’s getting me really juiced up right now." 

It was a pick that left many observers scratching their heads. Most outsiders had never even heard of Tavai. But the Lions zeroed in on him several months ago, and didn't mess around when they had the chance to get gim. 

"When we started scouting him during the season – actually going back to last spring – very unique with his body type, his playing strength, his ability to rush, cover, play the run, throw special teams in there as well," said Quinn. " Just because he plays in Hawaii, he’s probably off the radar a tiny bit. But not for our scouts."