With the offseason workout program in the rear-view mirror and training camp set to kick off later this month, the New England Patriots are fully “on to 2022.”
The team currently has 85 players under contract, but only 53 of them will be able to survive roster cutdowns in early September and ultimately make the active team. Over the course of spring and summer, just like we have in years past, we will take a look at the men fighting for those spots to find out who has the best chances of helping the Patriots build on their 10-7 record.
Today, the series continues with fourth-year linebacker Jahlani Tavai.
Name: Jahlani Tavai
Position: Off-the-ball linebacker
Jersey number: 48
Opening day age: 25
Size: 6-foot-2, 250 pounds
Contract status: Under contract through 2022 (2023 UFA)
What is his experience? Before entering the NFL as a second-round draft pick by the Detroit Lions in 2019, Tavai spent five years at the University of Hawai’i. Following a redshirt campaign in 2014, he established himself as an important member of the Rainbow Warriors’ defense — one who went on to appear in 47 total games between his freshman and senior seasons. Along the way, Tavai registered 391 tackles, 17.5 sacks, a pair of interceptions, three each forced fumbles and recoveries, and a blocked punt.
His college performance prompted the Lions to invest the 43rd overall selection in the 2019 draft in Tavai. He showed some promise early, appearing in 15 games as a rookie before a late-December shoulder injury ended his rookie year. He returned the following year to add 16 more contests to his résumé, but was let go by Detroit in 2021; Tavai joined the Patriots a short time later. All in all, he has appeared in 44 games at the NFL level, notching two sacks, three forced fumbles, two recoveries as well as an interception.
What did his 2021 season look like? Coming off two mostly inconsistent seasons as a big-bodied off-the-ball linebacker, the Lions under new head coach Dan Campbell asked him to shed some weight. Tavai did just that, but despite losing more than 20 pounds had a hard time adapting to Detroit’s new-look defensive scheme: he struggled in preseason, was oftentimes too late to react to plays and showed some up-and-down tackling. As a result, the team decided to part ways with its former second-round investment.
After not finding any takers on the trade market, Tavai was released by the Lions ahead of late August’s roster cutdown deadline. He went through the waiver wire unclaimed which in turn allowed him to join the Patriots’ practice squad (and to reunite with his former Lions head coach Matt Patricia). Tavai spent the first five weeks of the regular season on New England’s developmental roster, but he was elevated to the game-day squad on two occasions: he played a depth role in Weeks 3 and 4 against New Orleans and Tampa Bay.
In mid-October, the Patriots eventually decided to bring him up to their 53-man squad for good. Once there, he appeared in 12 of 13 games down the stretch while primarily being used in the kicking game: seeing action on five units, Tavai ended his first year in New England eighth in special teams snaps with 217 (of 464; 46.8%). Additionally, he was tied for fourth with eight combined tackles. Not all was positive, though, as Tavai also was responsible for a blocked punt against the Dallas Cowboys in Week 6.
His defensive contributions were limited, meanwhile. Tavai saw action as a linebacker in just 10 of his 14 games and finished the year with just 62 snaps on that side of the ball (of 1,135; 5.5%). He had six tackles — four versus the run and two versus the pass — and allowed opposing quarterbacks to go 5-for-5 targeting him for 116 yards an a touchdown. He also recovered a fumble late during New England’s Week 12 victory over the Tennessee Titans. That play was a positive, but Tavai served mainly as a backup option on defense.
What is his projected role? Based on how the Patriots employed him in 2021, and how the Lions under Matt Patricia used him the two previous years, the belief is that Tavai’s role this season will again be two-fold. On defense, he will serve as a rotational off-the-ball linebacker whose primary value lies in his abilities against the run rather than his coverage or pass rush skills. Additionally, the 25-year-old will serve as a member of multiple special teams units.
Does he have positional versatility? Tavai’s positional flexibility on the defensive side of the ball is rather limited. The Patriots aligned him in an off-the-ball capacity on the majority of his snaps last year — 55 of 62 (88.7%) — which was a continuation of his usage in Detroit. He did occasionally move up to the line of scrimmage as a Lion, serving as an outside linebacker, but New England only occasionally trusted him in that fashion either by design, lack of experience, or because of the depth ahead of him.
What is his special teams value? Whereas his versatility on defense did not stand out last year, Tavai wore several hats in the kicking game. The Patriots used him on the front line on both kickoff coverage and return, while he also served as their left guard on punt protection, a rusher on punt return, and a flanker on field goal and extra point kicks. He had some miscues — as noted above, he appeared to be responsible for one blocked punt — but the coaching staff trusted his abilities while putting more responsibilities on his plate as the year went on.
What is his salary cap situation? When the Patriots promoted Tavai from their practice squad to the active roster last October, they effectively signed him to a two-year deal. The final of those two seasons covers 2022 and has him carry a $1.14 million salary cap hit. That number is made out of a $965,000 salary, $25,000 signing bonus proration, $50,000 roster bonus and $100,000 in likely-to-be-earned per-game bonuses. With only his signing bonus guaranteed, the Patriots would create gross savings of $1.12 million by releasing him.
How safe is his roster spot? Tavai showed some promise out of college, but he has yet to live up to his second-round label in the NFL. His first season in New England did little to suggest he will be anything more than a special teamer at the pro level, which in turn paints a pretty clear picture as far as his spot on the roster is concerned: he will need to show signs of a second-year jump in training camp on both defense and special teams or else his job will go to other linebackers with kicking game experience such as Harvey Langi or Anfernee Jennings.
One-sentence projection: Firmly on the roster bubble, Tavai will see regular action in preseason but ultimately fail to make the cut.