How Patriots’ Jahlani Tavai Went From Practice Squad To Contract Extension

It's been quite the rise for the 26-year-old linebacker

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November 29, 2022

FOXBORO, Mass. — Last August, Jahlani Tavai was a second-round draft bust, cast aside by the Detroit Lions halfway through his rookie contract. Fifteen months later, he’s now a building block for one of the NFL’s top defenses.

On Tuesday, the New England Patriots signed the 26-year-old linebacker to a two-year contract extension reportedly worth $4.4 million, locking him up through the 2024 season.

“It’s a big thing for me,” Tavai said after Tuesday’s practice. “It’s my second contract, and I’m just blessed to have an opportunity to keep playing football.”

Little was expected of Tavai when he joined the Patriots just before the 2021 season. He initially signed to New England’s practice squad, reuniting with his former Lions head coach, Matt Patricia. The Patriots promoted him to the 53-man roster in mid-October, but he rarely played outside of special teams. In 13 appearances last season, he logged 195 snaps in the kicking game and just 56 on defense — 5.2% of the team’s total.

Entering his first Patriots training camp this summer, Tavai was a relative afterthought in New England’s revamped linebacker room. Head coach Bill Belichick raised eyebrows when he said he said he expected the Hawaii product to have a substantial role on all four downs this season, but that prediction proved accurate.

Twelve weeks in, Tavai’s defensive playing time has shot up to 52%. He’s started each of the Patriots’ last seven games while maintaining his role as a core special teamer, trailing only Matthew Slater and Brenden Schooler in special teams snaps played.

“Jahlani’s done a good job for us,” Belichick, who targeted Tavai in the 2019 NFL Draft but couldn’t land him, said after news of his extension broke. “He’s played a lot of football. He’s played on every down. He’s a smart, versatile player that’s earned playing time.”

Earlier this season, Belichick called Tavai one of the Patriots’ “most versatile players.” He’s split his defensive snaps between off-the-ball (199 snaps) and edge rusher (140) alignments, per Pro Football Focus, and made positive contributions in both roles with 38 tackles and 1 1/2 sacks. Heading into Thursday night’s showdown with the Buffalo Bills, his PFF grade ranks 21st among all NFL linebackers.

“I just want to be on the field,” said Tavai, who’s credited veterans like Dont’a Hightower, Kyle Van Noy and Jamie Collins with helping him acclimate last season. “I don’t care if I’m playing three-tech, on the edge or off the ball. I’ll be ready for whatever my role is. … My older brothers have always instilled that in me — to be adaptable in any kind of situation. Luckily, I was blessed with some good genes to play on and off the ball, and I’m just going to keep riding with it.”

The Patriots’ success Thursday night could hinge on how well Tavai and the rest of their linebacking corps — also featuring Matthew Judon, Ja’Whaun Bentley, Raekwon McMillan, Mack Wilson, Josh Uche and Anfernee Jennings — contains Josh Allen, the Bills’ dangerous dual-threat quarterback. With that massively important matchup on the horizon, Tavai won’t spend much time celebrating his new deal in the coming days.

“I’m happy,” he said. “I’m happy to be here. I’m happy to be a part of this organization. But I haven’t really had time to celebrate. Big week. We’ve got Buffalo, and that’s where my mind is right now. So I’m not trying to have no ups or downs right now. I’m just trying to keep it steady and just think about the game.”

But he does have one special purchase planned.

“I think my mom needs a new backyard,” Tavai said.

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Thumbnail photo via Brian Fluharty/USA TODAY Sports Images
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