General manager Bob Quinn entered the 2019 NFL Draft with the hope of adding talent and depth to his linebacker corps. But when it comes to the right fit in Detroit's multiple defensive scheme, Quinn and the Lions are very particular in the type of linebacker they are looking for.
"Linebackers that play in this defense that are very, very good natural fits – there's only a couple every year," Quinn said Friday night. "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."
The guy Quinn is referring to is second-round pick Jahlani Tavai out of Hawaii. Tavai wasn't a popular name heading into the draft, mainly because he played in the Mountain West Conference for Hawaii, but he checks off all the boxes Quinn is looking at the linebacker position for this scheme.
"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 like where (Devon) Kennard plays," he said. "He can go out there against a good tight end, hold the edge of the defense, which is crucially important.
"Then you see him play off the ball. You play him like 'J.D.' (Jarrad Davis) or Christian (Jones) and that's the versatility."
Tavai is just a shade under 6-foot-3 and weighs in at 250 pounds. He played both inside and outside linebacker spots, on the line and off the ball, and also has extensive experience rushing the passer. He had a ton of production the last three seasons for Hawaii. In 34 games, he had 335 tackles, 36 tackles for loss and 14.5 sacks. That includes missing the last four games of this past season due to a shoulder injury and serving a suspension Week 1.
Detroit's profile for the position is size and versatility. Davis (6-2, 227), Jones (6-3, 244) and Kennard (6-4, 256), Detroit's three starting linebackers, all have it. So, while maybe the draft analysts had other linebackers graded higher than Tavai, Quinn and the Lions valued Tavai more because of his fit for their scheme.
"I think he's six (feet), two-and-a-half (inches), about 250 (pounds)," Quinn said. "I think his wingspan is as tall, as big as some of the guys who are six (feet), four (inches), six (feet), five (inches). If I remember correctly, I think he has an 82- or 83-inch wingspan – which is pretty rare for that position.
"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 – really felt fortunate to be able to get him because there was some interest in and around our picks that we were getting pretty nervous there for a few picks."
Quinn said adding Tavai will allow them to move some pieces around at the linebacker position in an attempt to be even more versatile on defense in 2019. Maybe that gives Davis, who was one of only two linebackers in the NFL last season to record at least 100 tackles and 6.0 sacks, an opportunity to rush the passer more or move outside in certain packages.
"We have a lot of guys that can do a lot of different stuff," Quinn said. "You go back to Devon Kennard when we were looking at him in free agency, like, he played MIKE linebacker for the Giants about one-third of the snaps back in 2017. So we have a lot of guys that can do a lot of different things.
"You add a guy like Jahlani to the mix that can – 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. There's guys that can do that.
"A lot of guys in the draft, I would say, every year there's a very select few guys that you can actually see them do it on film. You're projecting, 'Well, this guy plays on the edge, but we project he can play at MIKE and play downhill.' This guy actually has visual evidence that you see him do that on, really, a game-by-game basis."