Why the Detroit Lions are 'really impressed' with third-year LB Jahlani Tavai

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Jahlani Tavai's future with the Detroit Lions seems murky as a scheme-specific linebacker who has struggled in his first two NFL seasons.

But new Lions linebackers coach Mark DeLeone insisted Thursday that he's excited about Tavai and what he can do for the Lions' defense this fall.

"I’ve been really impressed with Jahlani," DeLeone said. "He’s been here, he’s been doing a great job. He’s in really good shape right now and I’m excited to work with him, I’m excited to get to OTAs and be able to continue with him. Cause I’m really excited about him."

Detroit Lions linebacker Jahlani Tavai tries to tackle Tampa Bay Buccaneers running back Leonard Fournette during the first half Saturday, Dec. 26, 2020 at Ford Field.
Detroit Lions linebacker Jahlani Tavai tries to tackle Tampa Bay Buccaneers running back Leonard Fournette during the first half Saturday, Dec. 26, 2020 at Ford Field.

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A surprise second-round pick out of Hawaii in the 2019 draft, Tavai has made little meaningful impact in his first two seasons in Detroit.

He started six games as a rookie, when he made 58 tackles and had two sacks, and played as a two-down linebacker in a rotation with Reggie Ragland, alongside Jamie Collins, on the Lions' league-worst defense last year.

The Lions are switching full-time to a base 3-4 defense this fall, which should mean more opportunities for the linebacker position in general.

But Tavai is buried on a depth chart that includes Collins, free agent addition Alex Anzalone, 2021 fourth-round draft pick Derrick Barnes and special teams ace Jalen Reeves-Maybin, who re-signed with the Lions in part because of the chance to have an expanded defensive role.

"(He can play inside) linebacker, all three downs," DeLeone said. "I think Jalen has the ability to do that."

Tavai has yet to show three-down ability, and may have to earn a roster spot this summer with his special teams play.

He was in Allen Park for Phase 2 of the Lions' offseason workout program this week, and DeLeone said he was "doing well" on the field.

"I've really enjoyed working with him so far," DeLeon said. "He has a really good understanding of the game. I think he’s going to be a nice piece for us to work with in this scheme."

Contact Dave Birkett at dbirkett@freepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @davebirkett.

This article originally appeared on Detroit Free Press: Detroit Lions 'really impressed' with third-year LB Jahlani Tavai