Niyo: Lions’ spring cleaning doesn’t have to be clean sweep

Detroit News

Allen Park — One of the first tasks in any major renovation project is to figure out what’s worth keeping.

And that sure seems to be what we’re seeing play out with the Lions this spring, as a new front-office regime and new coaching staff takes inventory and decides what they’ve really got.

Part of the foundation already is in place here. And there are load-bearing walls that can’t be moved, for one reason or another. There also are some fixtures that are simply too difficult — or too expensive — to replace at the moment.

But while some of the demolition is done — Matthew Stafford traded, Kenny Golladay and Marvin Jones let go in free agency, and so on — this is still a salvage operation, in many respects.

And perhaps nowhere is that more evident than on the defensive side of the ball, where the unsolicited praise for third-year linebacker Jahlani Tavai this spring certainly stands out. Almost as much as his new-look physique does after he shed nearly 20 pounds this offseason to fit a new role in a new defense that just might suit him.

Tavai is the former second-round pick who has been widely panned as a poster boy for the failures of Bob Quinn’s tenure as general manager, as well as Matt Patricia’s disastrous three-year run as head coach. It’s understandable, if a bit unfair.

But when the Lions hit the practice field this week for Organized Team Activities, he looked like a different player, at least. Maybe even one this coaching staff can find a use for, which certainly isn’t what you would’ve expected a few months ago.

“I tell you what, Tavai is looking really, really good for us right now,” defensive coordinator Aaron Glenn said, echoing comments linebackers coach Mark DeLeone made last week. “He’s moving well. He’s another guy that is catching my eye, as far as guys who can run.”

As far as I can tell, Glenn wasn’t kidding. And for a guy who says he played at nearly 270 pounds for much of last season — Tavai bulked up to play a different role in Patricia’s defensive scheme — this spring really does feel like a fresh start.

Skipping the sweets

And a bit of a relief, I think, even if it took some serious guts just to get to this point. Opting for a bag of peanuts instead of a late-night meal while training out in Los Angeles this winter, or skipping the sweets while being playfully taunted at dinner by tight end T.J. Hockenson, one of his close friends on the team.

“I’d get a little dessert, and Jahlani was like, ‘Nah, man, I can’t have that,’” Hockenson recalled Thursday. “I’m like, ‘C’mon, man!’”

But Tavai was on a mission, ever since his initial meetings with the new coaching staff, including DeLeone, who set a goal for Tavai to get down to 245 pounds this season. It’s still May, but he’s nearly there: Tavai says he’s at 247 this week.

“And I think that’s the measure of discipline,” Glenn said. “When you tell a player ‘This is what I want you at,’ and he comes back and he’s there, then that’s the first thing.”

But the next thing — and the thing that never made much sense for some players on this roster with the previous staff — is when you tell him what you want him to do. Last season, Tavai was asked to play outside and help set the edge, and it sounds like it was as uncomfortable for the player to do that job as it was for Lions fans to watch him try.

The same probably can be said for others still on this roster, whether it’s the safety tandem of Tracy Walker and Will Harris, or the rookie first-round pick at cornerback, Jeff Okudah. Maybe even the likes of Nick Williams and Da’Shawn Hand — when healthy — on the defensive line.

And that’s really the underlying message that Glenn, who followed Campbell from New Orleans, was trying to deliver when he signed on this winter, saying, “We’re going to make sure that it’s not scheme then players” anymore.

On Thursday, he reiterated that, insisting, “Every guy on this defense, man, we’ve got to put those guys in position to be successful. That’s my job as a coach, to make sure I do that.”

After that, it’s up to the players, of course. And there’s certainly plenty of reason to be skeptical at this point. The near-historic failure of last year’s defense can’t solely be blamed on the scheme or the coaching, obviously.

Attacking, one-gap style

Still, with the Lions asking their defensive front to play more of an attacking, one-gap style this year, Tavai, for one, is returning to a more natural role off the ball. A role that’ll ideally “allow him to go make plays,” Glenn said.

“He played on the edge a lot in the last system and we want to put him as a stack ‘backer,” Glenn added. “We’re going to make it simple for him. Make his reads simple. Any linebacker will tell you: ‘If I can be covered up and I can run and get the ball, hell, that’s what I want to do.’”

More: Lions’ Aaron Glenn eager to squeeze most out of young secondary

Indeed, that’s exactly what Tavai confirmed when he met with the media Thursday afternoon.

Shortly after saying, “I’m not even thinking about the past right now,” he added a bit more frankness. “Shoot, I just want to come downhill and make plays. That’s it. (Linebackers) are supposed to be the game-changers 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 its just exciting to see everything come together right now. It’s pretty awesome.”

It’s the sort of thing we’ll continue to hear from players this spring, I imagine, as the Lions finish OTAs next week and then hold a three-day minicamp in the second week of June. Simplifying the Lions’ defensive scheme was a priority this offseason, and finding ways to better utilize personnel was a necessity. There’s only so much roster turnover a GM can complete in one offseason, after all.

There’s also relatively little pressure on this staff to make hasty decisions on players, though. So whether it’s an overpaid guard like Halapoulivaati Vaitai – “Why couldn’t he be part of this puzzle?” offensive line coach Hank Fraley asked last week – or someone like Tavai who could be cut with little salary-cap effect, there’s no reason not to see how it might play out.

“And he’s enjoying that,” DeLeone said, when asked about Tavai. “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 a starting job, but I can promise you a chance to compete.

“That’s all I can give you. But you have to do the rest.’ And he’s like, ‘Coach, I like it.’ So that’s what we’re gonna give him a chance to do.”

Twitter: @JohnNiyo

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