When T.J. Hockenson and Jahlani Tavai, the Detroit Lions‘ first two picks in the 2019 NFL draft, went out to dinner in Los Angeles earlier this spring, Hockenson made sure to order dessert at the end of his meal — and get on his good friend about not being able to do the same.
After two disappointing seasons, Tavai changed his diet and exercise routine this offseason, as part of a complete body makeover.
The third-year linebacker has lost 17 pounds already and practiced Thursday at a slender 247 pounds. Last fall, Tavai played at nearly 270 pounds, a weight that was evident in his sluggish play.
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While former coach Matt Patricia wanted Tavai that heavy — better to set the edge in his sieve of a defense — Dan Campbell and his new staff encouraged Tavai to drop weight in hopes of unleashing more of his athletic ability.
Since he returned to town two weeks ago, Tavai has drawn ample praise for his physical conditioning. Linebackers coach Mark DeLeone said last week he was “really impressed” with Tavai, and on Thursday, defensive coordinator Anthony Glenn said, unprompted, that Tavai looks “really, really good” and is “catching my eye as far as a guy who can run.”
“We challenged him as far as the weight that we want him to come back at,” Glenn said. “So I think that’s the measure of discipline, when you tell a player, ‘this is what I want you at,’ and you see him come back and he’s there, that’s the first thing. The second thing, man, is just his movement. To be as big as he is — he did lose a lot of weight —but to be as big as he is, he can move fairly well. So that kind of surprised us. And I don’t want to say totally surprised, but it was good to see a man of that size that can move like that.”
Tavai isn’t the first Lion to show up for voluntary workouts in the proverbial best shape of his life, but his play this fall could be a referendum on all that has ailed the organization in the recent past.
Player development. Scheme. And coaches who believed way more in their overinflated opinion of themselves and their playbook than anyone else in the organization.
What the Lions get out of Tavai this fall will not define Campbell’s tenure as a coach. But if this staff can squeeze something out of a player most considered unsalvageable six months ago, it could bode well for the Lions’ short- and long-term futures.
Tavai is in the mix to play significant snaps at a linebacker position that has undergone major changes this offseason.
The Lions are converting to a 3-4 defense full-time, and are searching for stack linebackers to play in the middle of the field. Jamie Collins is a favorite for one starting job, and the Lions signed Alex Anzalone in free agency and added Derrick Barnes in the draft.
But at 24 years old, Tavai is in a situation perhaps not too dissimilar from that of another second-round pick five years ago.
In 2014, the Lions drafted Kyle Van Noy with the 40th overall pick. Van Noy spent parts of three middling/injury-plagued seasons in Detroit before he was traded to the New England Patriots in 2016.
The Patriots, predictably, unlocked Van Noy’s potential, and Van Noy turned in three impressive seasons — and helping New England win a Super Bowl — before signing a four-year contract worth $30 million in guaranteed money with the Miami Dolphins.
It is way too premature to say Tavai is on a similar path, but on Thursday, Tavai expressed a better comfort level with his new defense.
“I’m ready for anything, really, but yeah, I’m really happy to be back at stack ‘backer,” he said. “Get to see everything better, see it from afar and really just use all the mechanics that they’ve been teaching me in these meeting rooms. But yeah, I’m excited for everything that’s coming right now. And so far it’s been good. I have nothing but positive remarks on everything that we’ve been going through these last two weeks I’ve been here.”
Tavai’s excitement is due to more than his physical transformation.
He said spoke of chasing greatness, both individually and as a team, and said Campbell and his staff have infused players with a new energy.
“We’re just trying to be great,” Tavai said. “We’re tired of being the bottom of our division and just to see everybody’s — I don’t know, you can feel it in our team meetings, the vibe that our staff is bringing to us and everything. We all have that chip on our shoulder.”
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Tavai still has a long way to go for that chip to become actionable. Weight wasn’t the only thing holding him back last fall, and he needs to show he has improved once the pads come on.
But Glenn intends to simplify Tavai’s reads and role, and if early returns mean anything, that could do Tavai and the Lions’ defense a world of good.
“Every 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,” Glenn said. “So we try to put all our guys in that position. Is it totally going to be like that? No, but for the most part, every guy on this defense, we try to put those guys in position to be successful. That’s my job as a coach to make sure I do that.”