The Patriots turning under-the-radar players into useful contributors is a tradition in New England.
In a challenging league, it doesn't always click for every player right away, and each player's situation entering the NFL often dictates their success.
For Patriots linebacker Jahlani Tavai, his first two seasons with the Detroit Lions after being selected 43rd overall in the 2019 NFL Draft didn't go as planned. Tavai had an inconsistent start to his career and was released two years into his rookie deal by the Lions on cutdown day at the end of training camp in 2021.
The 26-year-old quickly found a new home in a predictable place, joining the Patriots practice squad, and was signed to the 53-man roster where he's found a home since last October.
On Tuesday, Patriots head coach Bill Belichick confirmed that the team signed Tavai to a contract extension that is reportedly for two years and worth over $4 million for the defensive role player and core special teamer.
"Jahlani has done a good job for us. He's played a lot of football. Played on every down. Smart, versatile player who has earned playing time," Belichick said. "Performance and his contract was up is another reason [for the extension], or it's going to be [at the end of the season]."
Although his primary focus remains Thursday night's game against the Bills, Tavai spoke to Patriots.com about his contract extension following Tuesday's practice.
"I'm happy as hell. I'm grateful for the opportunity they gave me," Tavai said. "I'm just worried about Buffalo. I'm not even thinking about that right now. I'm just happy and blessed that I got the opportunity. It's a big thing for me. It's my second contract, and I'm just blessed to have an opportunity to keep playing football."
Tavai was on New England's radar dating back to his days at the University of Hawaii, with Belichick himself working Tavai out at UCLA before the draft. But Senior Football Adviser Matt Patricia swooped in before the Patriots could select the Rainbow Warriors linebacker.
"When we got him last year, he had a lot of familiarity with our system and a lot of techniques with things that we did and so forth. Just overall, he has that skill set that he can play on the end of the line, play off the line, has some pass rush ability, and plays on all four phases of the kicking game. He's a pretty versatile player and can plug into a lot of different spots, which is helpful, because not everybody can do that or has to be able to do that. He kind of fits that. He's got good size, runs pretty well, has good playing strength, and is smart," Belichick said.
After things didn't pan out with the Lions, Tavai didn't allow the initial failure in the NFL to deter his path towards contributing and carving out a role on a team to continue his pro career.
"I try not to live by roller coasters, man. I try to live my life as consistently as possible or as steadily as I can. That's just the way of football. You don't want too many ups and downs. You want to keep it steady and show no panic. I have faith in myself, and I bet on myself that I could get things done," he told reporters on Tuesday.
Regarding what has worked for the linebacker in his second stop, Tavai pointed to the guidance of his veteran teammates over the last two seasons and earning his playing time.
"Just building trust over here. We have a lot of older vets over here, and the biggest thing for me was building trust, and once I was able to do that, everything just started clicking. Hopefully, I keep going."
Like many Patriots linebackers before him, the 6-foot-2, 250-pounder has split time as an edge defender and an inside linebacker this season. According to Pro Football Focus, Tavai has played 199 snaps as a middle linebacker and 140 on the edge of the defense.
"I've always been comfortable on or off the ball. It's just another opportunity for me to be on the field. All I care about is being out there and riding with the boys. I don't care if I'm playing three tech[nique], edge, or off the ball. I'll be ready for whatever my role is. My older brothers have instilled that to be adaptable. 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."
As an off-ball linebacker, Tavai made a flashy tackle for loss on a Davlin Cook run against the Vikings last Thursday night. Minnesota ran their staple outside zone scheme to Tavai's side of the line of scrimmage, and he shot the gap to make the tackle behind the line of scrimmage. Tavai celebrated the play with an ode to his native Samoa, which his brothers used to do as well.
"That was a big-time play. I was just trying to make sure I took advantage of everything out there. I wanted to make sure I got them back. It was a cool experience," Tavai said.
Along with making plays against the run from off the ball and setting the edge of the defense, Tavai made a standout play in coverage earlier this season that helped rookie corner Jack Jones make a spectacular interception vs. the Detroit Lions.
"Jahlani [Tavai] made a really good play when the ball was in the air to close as much as he did," Belichick said after the game. "Both Jahlani and Jack played it very well. But it's a good play, it's a tough play. [T.J.] Hockenson is a tough guy to defend with those high throws like that. He would have, I'm sure, gone up and gotten it for a touchdown if Jack hadn't been able to get his hands on the ball. Really heads up play or just a good play by Jahlani and by Jack, recognizing that and then Jack's transition and ball skills, timing, jump, catch."
On a defense with Pro Bowlers like Matthew Judon and Patriots legends like Devin McCourty, Tavai won't garner many headlines. However, Tavai is 21st among all linebackers in Pro Football Focus grade (71.8) and has played 52.4 percent of the defensive plays.
New England has a knack for finding roles for players who fit their prototype at linebacker, and as the latest success story, Tavai will stick around for the next few seasons.