Allen Park — A little more than a year ago, the Detroit Lions approached Jason Cabinda about a position change. Not a subtle move, from outside linebacker to defensive end or offensive tackle to guard. No, the Lions wanted to upend Cabinda’s world, transitioning the linebacker to fullback.
A three-year starter at Penn State, otherwise known as Linebacker U for their propensity for producing high-caliber talent at the position, Cabinda hadn’t lined up in a backfield since high school. Naturally, there was some reluctance.
“I was obviously, like anybody else would (be) switching positions in this league, I was unsure,” Cabinda said. “I didn’t know if I wanted to do it at first.”
Ultimately, in what he considered a team-first decision, he acquiesced. What goes unstated is the switch offered a better chance to make the Lions’ roster last season, where his only competition was himself following a season-ending injury to Nick Bawden.
All things considered, Cabinda held his own while learning on the fly. For the first time in his career, he appeared in all 16 games, and while he only saw a touch more than eight snaps per game as a fullback, he developed into one of the team’s top special-teams contributors.
A year later, Cabinda is fully entrenched at fullback. He had an offseason to prepare for the role and he’s been impressing his coaches with the versatility he’s offering at the position.
“I’ve been intrigued by Cabinda since the spring,” Lions coach Dan Campbell said. “We knew he was a little raw because he made that transition last year, but there is something to him. I think he’s kind of a hybrid of a hybrid.”
Maybe it’s the skill set Cabinda retained from his days as an all-state running back in high school, but Campbell sees potential for Cabinda as a ball carrier. But where he’s really stood out during training camp is as a pass-catcher.
Cabinda caught just two passes in 2020, but if his practice usage is any indication, there’s room for significant production growth his second year in the role.
That versatility opens up some interesting schematic opportunities for Detroit’s offense. While the fullback position has seen a steady decline in its usage the past decade, it’s the athletic, versatile options who are still finding a way to thrive.
The prime example is Kyle Juszczyk in San Francisco, who led all fullbacks in playing time last season. The 49ers have found a way to creatively deploy him within coach Kyle Shanahan’s offensive scheme, putting Juszczyk in the backfield, off tackle, in the slot and even out wide, creating various mismatches.
“When I first knew I was playing fullback, that’s actually the first guy whose film I requested,” Cabinda said. “I looked at Keith Smith as well, another fullback. So those two guys I studied the most. That’s kind of necessary. When you see guys on the upper echelon of a certain position, you always want to see what kinds of traits do they have, what do they do well, what can I adopt into my game. So I think watching them and seeing what they do on the field has helped me in my approach as well.”
In addition to the film study, Cabinda approached his training differently. Both a linebacker and fullback want to be the hammer, not the nail, but the mentality of a defensive player is reactive, which has been an adjustment.
“When I made that switch, I didn’t have those mechanics I kind of wanted when it came to an offensive perspective,” he explained. “Going into this offseason, being able to completely focus on the offensive side of the ball, and crafting and catching and running routes and doing all those kinds of things, I mean, it’s helped me tremendously.
“I think the amount of speed training I’ve done to get faster and be able to hit holes, be more explosive, be lower, there’s a whole lot of things,” Cabinda continued. “Body control, being able to be precise with the things that I do. You know, when you play linebacker, everything you do is reacting. When you’re on offense, you try to dictate. So the mindset is kind of different, in that aspect. So everything, from the drills to the workouts I’m doing got to change.”
Off-the-field, Cabinda has a big personality. As a rookie with the Raiders, his fight for a roster spot was featured on the HBO program, “Hard Knocks.” Cabinda insists it’s his mother, Natalie, who appeared on the show with him, was the real star.
Currently, Cabinda is working on a homemade docu-series chronicling his experiences as an NFL player, which he hopes can be a source of inspiration to others.
“It’s really just an introspective and look into an NFL player’s life and what it really takes,” Cabinda said. “I think there’s a lot of people who think we just show up on Sunday and play, and don’t really understand the offseason. They don’t really understand the way we’re working. They don’t understand guys rehabbing, and what it takes on a daily basis to keep your body ready and going, and preparation for the season.
“…I just felt like there were people that could be inspired by it,” Cabinda said. “There are so many people who don’t go where they could go because they don’t see other people who have been in their shoes who have gotten there. I think being able to show that perspective, that hey, I’ve been here before, this is how you do, I think that helps a lot because it gives people the confidence to take that first step. Nowadays, with social media and all these things, people are scared of embarrassment and people are scared to take that first step in whatever their dream is and whatever they’re trying to do. You can’t be like that. You can’t worry about that. You have to worry about you.”