While common at the college level, it’s far more unusual for an NFL player to switch positions, especially from offense to defense or vice versa. But, the 2020 Detroit Lions are unique in this regard.
The team has not one, not two, but three players on active roster who are playing on the opposite side of the ball than what they did in college.
Jamal Agnew definitely got the most attention this offseason, making a full-time transition from cornerback to wide receiver. An electric return man with an All-Pro selection on the resume, the Lions clearly felt it was important to explore getting the ball in his hands more often.
So far, so good. Agnew thrived during training camp, earning a job despite a deep receiving corps.
Following Agnew to the offensive huddle, Jason Cabinda flipped from linebacker to fullback. It’s the second time the Lions have executed that conversion in the past few years, after Nick Bellore blazed the path a few years back.
Cabinda’s move was more out of necessity than Agnew’s, with starter Nick Bawden dealing with nagging injuries that ultimately sent him to injured reserve and undrafted rookie Luke Sellers proving he wasn’t ready to be the solution.
Finally, there’s Matt Nelson. A defensive lineman for the University of Iowa, Detroit converted the 6-foot-7, 313-pounder to offensive line as an undrafted rookie a year ago and he managed to earn a roster spot after just two offseasons in his new role.
“We certainly understand that on the active roster, there’s going to be guys that we need to look at that can potentially help us in other situations based on injury, based on the game-day roster,” Lions coach Matt Patricia said. “And we try to cross-train those ahead of time, identify guys that maybe have done something similar in the past and/or have a skill-set that we think is applicable for that particular position.”
Patricia’s background, coming to Detroit from New England, obviously plays a role in how these position switches are envisioned and executed. First, he himself was cross-trained, like many New England assistants, coaching both offensive and defensive position groups during his time with the franchise.
“I think it helps give the coach a better overall understanding of the game, understanding all three phases and how they fit together, how the game has to come together,” Patricia said.
Additionally, under Bill Belichick, the Patriots have a history of shifting players around to fill needs. Patricia highlighted the usage of wide receivers Troy Brown and Julian Edelman as emergency defensive backs and defensive tackle Richard Seymour playing some fullback as examples.
“It’s not unfamiliar for me to cross-train guys and have them ready to go, but certainly, the more you can do, obviously, the better it is (for) your value on game day,” Patricia said. “So we certainly like to do that. I’d say with those guys in particular, they’ve done a great job of really handling the information. That’s the biggest thing.”
And handling the information might be a bigger challenge than the physical demands of a position switch. Patricia compared it to learning three or four languages at once.
“There’s a lot into that — try to learn two playbooks at one time,” Patricia said. “Plus, if you’re a special teams guy, you’re learning all three playbooks. You’re trying to learn the nuances of everything. It’s one thing to learn your side of the ball’s playbook, but understand if you’re an offensive player, you have to learn how to identify defense in the offensive terminology. If you’re a defensive player, you learn how to identify offense in the defensive terminology, and sometimes that doesn’t always cross over. …That becomes very taxing, I would say, unless you have the right mindset to get it done.”