Between the 2019 NFL draft picks of wide receiver N’Keal Harry and cornerback Joejuan Williams, a linebacker the New England Patriots had become familiar with transitioned to a familiar face.
Matt Patricia and the Detroit Lions turned over the card for Hawaii product Jahlani Tavai in the second round at No. 43 overall that April.
A lot has changed since then. They’re both in Foxborough now. And if the board played out differently, that’s where the latter could possibly have been all along.
“Yeah, I coached him at UCLA,” Patriots head coach Bill Belichick recalled of the 26-year-old Tavai during his Friday news conference. “We spent a day together at UCLA and Matt selected him in the second round. We didn’t really give him a chance, but we always get our man. Not always, usually sometimes. Sometimes we catch our man the second time.”
Tavai appeared in 31 games as a member of the Lions, starting 16. His tenure brought 116 tackles, two sacks, three forced fumbles, one fumble recovery, one interception, and one stop on injured reserve list.
Waived halfway through his four-year, $6.893 million rookie deal in the summer of 2021, Tavai went through the league wire unclaimed. The 6-foot-2, 250-pound former All-Mountain West selection signed with the New England practice squad from there. In doing so, he reunited him with the head coach Detroit also moved from, who now holds the titles of senior football adviser and offensive line coach where he was previously defensive coordinator.
A promotion to the Patriots’ 53-man roster followed early in the final regular season for Tavai. He did it on a two-year deal that saw him play in 13 games while ranking eighth in snaps played on special teams.
The coverage limitations and indirect angles were seen by a prospect who once ran the 40-yard dash in 4.86 seconds on his pro day. But Tavai survived the preseason bubble despite not being the modern prototype in the job. Flexible scheme size and playing strength played a part in why. Off the fringes and off the ball, he has appeared in all six games this season, posting his first sack since his rookie season with 22 tackles.
Tavai has recorded 75%, 79% and 63% defensive kills, respectively, since the calendar changed to October. New England’s last two wins, including a 29-0 shutout against the Lions, were starts for No. 48.
“Well, I think Jahlani has a few things going for him,” Belichick told reporters. “First, he’s a pretty smart kid and he’s played both inside and outside in college and then with Matt in Detroit. So when we hired him last year, he was very familiar with our system, a lot of techniques and things that we did, etc. But overall, he has that skill set that he can play end of the line, play off the line, has some ability to rush the passer, plays all four phases of the kicking game.”
The Patriots made a total of ten picks in the 2019 draft, only four of which remain in the organization. Running back Damien Harris, a starter on a one-year contract, and punter Jake Bailey, a 2020 first-team All-Pro who signed a four-year, $13.5 million extension in August, currently reside on the active roster. Leading undrafted wide receiver Jakobi Meyers does as well after being offered at the restricted second-round level of $3.986 million last spring.
Tavai can be seen as a complement to what remains of that class. His $1.143 million salary cap number ranks 33rd on the team, according to OverTheCap.com, while his 65.0 Pro Football Focus rating ranks 11th on defense. The downhill linebacker has yet to miss a tackle this fall.
“He’s a pretty versatile player and he can connect in a lot of different places, which is helpful because not everyone can or has to be able to,” Belichick said. “But someone has to be able to do it, so it fits with that.”