Jalen Reeves-Maybin will be an unrestricted free agent in March, but the Detroit Lions want him back — and will give him a chance to win a starting job next fall if he returns.
“He will have his chance to be our starting inside linebacker,” Lions defensive coordinator Aaron Glenn promised Thursday. “He’s had a great year. Still has a ways to go, but we’re excited about that player.”
A special teams standout most of his career, Reeves-Maybin has emerged as one of the Lions’ most important defensive players since moving into a starting role in early October.
He is tied for fifth on the team with 57 tackles. He forced key fourth-quarter fumbles in losses to the Minnesota Vikings and Atlanta Falcons. And he has worn the green-dot helmet, tasked with replaying defensive play calls, most of the past two weeks.
Lions coach Dan Campbell singled out Reeves-Maybin on Monday when asked to name his team’s most valuable and reliable players outside of quarterback Jared Goff.
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“There’s a number of guys, but I mean certainly one of the first ones that pops in my head is, Jalen Reeves-Maybin pops up,” Campbell said. “I know he missed a couple of games here due to injury, but when he’s been out there on defense and on special teams, he just, he makes plays. He’s a football player. And that doesn’t go unnoticed.”
Ticketed primarily for special teams duty when he re-signed with the Lions last spring, Reeves-Maybin took on a larger defensive role after the Lions released Jamie Collins in late September.
Initially, he split the starting job next to Alex Anzalone with rookie linebacker Derrick Barnes, but more recently he has emerged as an every-down player.
In his first start of the season in Week 5, Reeves-Maybin ripped a fumble out of Vikings running back Alexander Mattison’s hands deep in Minnesota territory with 1:56 to play. The Lions scored the go-ahead touchdown three plays later, but lost on a Greg Joseph field goal as time expired.
Two weeks ago, in his return from a sprained shoulder that kept him out two games, Reeves-Maybin played a key role spying Kyler Murray in the Lions’ 30-12 upset of the Arizona Cardinals. Anzalone suffered a season-ending shoulder injury in the first half, and Reeves-Maybin handled green-dot helmet duties the rest of the game.
Last week, he played every defensive snap for the first time in his career (plus seven plays on special teams) and forced a Russell Gage fumble with 2:18 to play. The Lions recovered at the Falcons’ 37-yard line, but failed to score after Tim Boyle threw a goal line interception.
“Man, that guy is a football player,” Glenn said. “The thing is he loves football. You clearly see that when he’s on the field. Anytime you have a player of that magnitude, man, you can’t help but just put him on the field and you can’t help but just play him.”
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Though their defense has overachieved this season, the Lions (2-12-1) are looking at significant turnover on that side in 2022.
Six starters are pending free agents: Reeves-Maybin, Anzalone, defensive tackle Nick Williams, edge rusher Charles Harris and safeties Tracy Walker and Dean Marlowe. Outside linebacker Romeo Okwara and cornerback Jeff Okudah are due back from early-season Achilles tendon injuries. Trey Flowers could be a cap casualty. And the Lions will be in position to add a defensive playmaker with a top-five pick in the draft.
Reeves-Maybin said there are no talks ongoing about a possible extension, but he is open to returning “as long as the math is mathing.”
Glenn said the Lions would “love to have” any of their pending free agents back, but Reeves-Maybin has emerged as arguably the most important of the bunch.
“Obviously, we want the player back,” Glenn said. “I mean, there’s no doubt about that because he’s a good player. Any one of our players that are free agents, we want them back. And if he does come back, he definitely is going to get a chance to be that starting inside linebacker.”
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