Heading toward the third and final cutdown day in August, Jahlani Tavai was seen as a player firmly on the roster bubble. The New England Patriots, after all, had several locks at the off-ball linebacker position — Ja’Whaun Bentley, Raekwon McMillan, Mack Wilson — and some intriguing potential in the form of sophomore Cameron McGrone.
Tavai, meanwhile, had never lived up to his second-round label and had only played a marginal role in his first season as a Patriot in 2021. His release would not have been too big a surprise given his career up until that point as well as his training camp performance.
Fast forward to mid-October and his status has changed dramatically compared to those late-August projections.
Five games into the Patriots’ regular season, Tavai is ranked second among the team’s off-the-ball linebackers with a 49.7 percent playing-time share. Only Ja’Whaun Bentley’s 76.4 percent top that mark, with both Mack Wilson (37.4%) and Raekwon McMillan (23.6%) clearly trailing behind. Additionally, he is third on the team in kicking game snaps (76.5%).
His versatility has indeed been an asset for the Patriots so far, and something head coach Bill Belichick also pointed to when speaking about Tavai on Monday.
“Jahlani’s one of our most versatile players,” Belichick said. “Plays in all phases of the kicking game and then plays ... on the ball and off the ball. Also has played in a lot of the third down passing situation groups, as you saw in preseason, less during the regular season. But certainly he’s capable of that. He’s a player that’s really played well in all those roles.
“But he has a multitude of things we have asked him to do defensively. It’s given our defense some flexibility and versatility and that’s valuable for the different offenses you have to match up against.”
Belichick mentioned a concrete example from Sunday’s 29-0 victory over Tavai’s former team, the Detroit Lions. The best rushing team in the NFL entering the contest, they used a wide variety of packages ranging from 13 personnel with one running back and three tight ends on the field, to 12 (one back, two tight ends) to 11 (one back, one tight end).
This ability to employ several personnel packages has allowed the Lions to enter Week 5 as the highest scoring offense in football. It also put pressure on the New England defense and its linebacker group in particular to be ready for all kinds of looks.
Having a player like Tavai in the lineup helps with that, according to Belichick.
“Jahlani’s a player that gives you some versatility to match up to guys like that,” he said. “One of the plays that Detroit ran was when they had 11personnel on the field and they quickly subbed to 13 and ran that out there, to get our smaller players on the field if you will. Then bring the big guys in and run the ball. We handled that play pretty well for a short gain with our passing game people on the field against their running set.
“But I think that kind of speaks to the level of comfort we have and the flexibility we have defensively to play interchangeably through those types of situations. We have a number of players like that, but Jahlani is certainly one of them.”
The 43rd overall selection in the 2019 draft, Tavai joined the Lions when current Patriots assistant Matt Patricia was their head coach. However, he never reached the natural expectations a second-round pick has to carry.
While the Hawai’i product appeared in 31 games over his first two seasons and played more than half of Detroit’s defensive snaps as both a rookie and sophomore, he did not survive the regime change after Patricia’s firing. He was let go as part of roster cutdowns in 2021, and quickly picked up by the Patriots.
After starting the season on the practice squad, he moved to the active roster as a depth option at linebacker and core special teamer. He is still playing that latter role in his second season in New England, but has also massively increased his defensive output recently.
While he played only roughly a quarter of defensive snaps through the first three weeks of the season, he has been on the field for 75 and 79 against Green Bay and Detroit, respectively. His game against the Lions might have been his best since arriving in New England.
“He’s a smart kid. Has done a good job for us,” Belichick said about him.
“To be able to have all those roles that comes with a player who’s not only smart but also instinctive, and can be put in different positions from play to play and down to down and still react and function at a high level at multiple spots without us having to substitute multiple players on every play and then tell the offense what grouping we have in and what we’re going to be. He’s been great.”