After the last few seasons of dismal results, Detroit Lions fans are happy to embrace the mantra out with the old and in with the new. But when it comes to the team’s linebacker group, new position coach Mark DeLeone isn’t ready to cast aside one of the poster children of the past regime’s shortcomings.
A second-round pick in 2019, Jahlani Tavai hasn’t lived up to expectations. After a particularly disappointing second season, that might be putting it kindly. But even though the Lions put in some serious effort revamping the linebacker room this offseason, Tavai is still here and DeLeone is more excited about that than one might think.
“I tell you what, I’ve been really impressed with Jahlani,” DeLeone said. “He’s been here (and) he’s been doing a great job. He’s in really good shape right now. I’m excited to work with him. I’m excited for us to get to OTAs and be able to continue with him because I’m really excited about him.”
“I can just tell you when he came out when he was out on the field this week, he’s been doing well and I’ve really enjoyed working with him so far,” DeLeone continued. “He has a really good understanding of the game. I think he’s gonna be a nice piece for us to work within this scheme.”
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It’s unclear where Tavai fits into Detroit’s plans after their offseason moves. The team signed former New Orleans starter Alex Anzalone in free agency, traded back into the fourth round to draft Derrick Barnes and re-signed special teams standout Jalen Reeves-Maybin with the intention of giving him an opportunity to reestablish a role on defense.
“Complete linebacker, all three downs, I think Jalen has the ability to do that,” DeLeone said.
As for Barnes, the Lions love his versatility, having played along the defensive line and off the ball as a captain for Purdue. At 6-foot, 238 pounds, he’ll stay playing off the ball in the NFL, where reps will be key to his development.
“I’ll tell you the one thing about Derrick, you know, in college he plays fast,” DeLeone said. “He’s a frickin’ high-effort, relentless, motor guy. And I think he’s only going to get better, you know? Like exactly what (special advisor) Chris (Spielman) said, one year off the ball experience, has rush ability, but you can see him really coming into his own as the season went on last year. I think so far as he’s been here, we’re just going to continue to work with him, continue to develop him and grow that potential. I see, definitely, a bright future here for Derrick.”
Trip down memory lane
Senior defensive assistant Dom Capers has known defensive coordinator Aaron Glenn for a long time, dating back to a three-year stint together in Houston, when the Texans entered the NFL as an expansion team in 2002.
Capers was the franchise’s first head coach and Glenn, a first-round pick for the Jets in 1997, was the third pick by the Texans in the expansion draft, behind offensive tackles Tony Boselli and Ryan Young.
A two-time Pro Bowler at the time of his selection, Glenn would earn the honors again in his first season with the Texans, intercepting five passes that year. He also was the central figure in what Capers called the most unbelievable game of his NFL coaching career, which has spanned 35 years.
“We went into Pittsburgh, they had a good team and of course we were an expansion team,” Capers recalled. “We had 53 yards total offense and three first downs and beat ’em 24-7 and they were a playoff team. Aaron Glenn intercepted two passes for over 70 yards for touchdowns, so that was kind of his marquee game that year.”
Capers was almost spot-on with the details, but he actually oversold his team’s offensive output from that day. The Texans actually only amassed 47 yards of offense, while the Steelers racked up 422 yards, but were held to just the six points thanks to five turnovers, including Glenn’s two interceptions.
Capers has kept in contact with Glenn over the years and been impressed, but not surprised by his former player’s rise through the coaching ranks.
“Well, I think the thing that stands out, he’s got really good leadership skills,” Capers said. “He was a good leader as a player. I can remember having him speak with the defense and speak with the team at times. He always did a good job of that, took a lot of pride in doing that and you can see that here with our players. I mean, he’s developed over the years and he’s just got those leadership qualities, which I think is going to benefit him very well throughout his time here and in the future.”
Still high on Vaitai
The 2020 campaign was one to forget for Halapoulivaati Vaitai. The big-ticket free agent addition was pegged to start at right tackle, only to see his season derailed by a foot injury in training camp.
He ended up shifting to guard, battling some early inconsistencies and missing six games total. But the Lions coaching staff, particularly position coach Hank Fraley, remain optimistic about Vaitai’s ability to make a difference in Detroit.
“He does a lot of things that people in this league can’t,” Fraley said. “He’s athletic, he’s big, moving the line scrimmage in this league is hard to do, you can pull him, you can anchor in pass protection. I’m excited for him. He’s played a lot of ball. He played a lot of ball in Philadelphia. I mean, he was the starting left tackle when they won the Super Bowl. He’s played a lot of ball, he’s experienced. And why couldn’t he be part of this puzzle?”
After the Lions drafted Penei Sewell in the first round with the intention of playing him at right tackle, early projections have Vaitai as the team’s starting right guard.
Looking for playmakers
As a former high school coach, Lions defensive backs coach Aubrey Pleasant learned to work with the talent he had. That has helped him avoid the pitfall of requiring a specific type of player to effectively execute a defensive scheme at this level.
“Sometimes you get the talent that you have and you have to really enhance what they do well,” Pleasant said. “That’s just what I believe. I believe that you give me something, I’m going to enhance what they do well.”
But there is one trait he desires in every defensive back he coaches.
“The one thing that I’ll always look for in a defensive back is some type of ball production,” Pleasant said. “At the end of the day, my job is to get the ball back to the offense. So when you look at the opportunity to have some ball production, no matter if it’s pass breakups, interceptions, forced fumbles, guys that are around the ball, that’s something I always look for.”
Pleasant has his work cut out for him with the Lions. In 2020, the team ranked 28th in pass defenses (51) and 31st in interceptions (seven). In fact, the Lions have finished bottom-three in interceptions each of the past three seasons.