The Detroit Lions waited until the sixth round (pick No. 188) to address the linebacker position, but they’re hoping they found a sleeper and key contributor in Oklahoma State’s Malcolm Rodriguez.
A high school linebacker/safety hybrid (and dual-threat quarterback on offense), at just 205 pounds, Rodriguez entered Oklahoma State as a safety. He earned a starting safety role as a sophomore, added weight and switched to a starting linebacker role as a junior, and was a captain during his senior and fifth-year senior years (he took advantage of the extra year of eligibility the NCAA allowed due to COVID-19). Over his career, Rodriguez started 48 games (10 as a safety) for the Cowboys and produced at least 82 tackles in each of his four seasons started, including 130 in 2021.
Rodriguez (5-foot-11, 236 pounds) played the WILL linebacker in their 4-2-5 base (last year the Lions call that position their BUCK linebacker) and projects to the same role in the NFL. That should line up perfectly with the Lions, and he should be a long-term complementary player to Derrick Barnes.
At OSU, Rodriguez bulked up his box score numbers due to his elite anticipation and instincts. He is clearly undersized for the NFL, but his playstyle has evolved by adapting to his weaknesses, playing fearless, and trusting himself to be in the right position on the field—which he typically always is.
Against the run, Rodriguez identifies the ball through gaps with precision, showing a high level of processing to diagnose the play, and the quickness to fill his assignment. When he attacks, his downhill burst helps him get to his spot ahead of the offensive linemen, allowing him to stay clean and get into the backfield (he had 16.5 tackles for loss in 2021). This shows up positively as a blitzer as well.
When he does engage he likes to strike first. By being the aggressor, Rodriguez can use his strength to stack and shed blocks. And even when he does get stuck on a block, he will often lean on his wrestling background (two-time state wrestling champion) to leverage his man and jam the running lane.
When tracking the run laterally, he scrapes down the line and has the speed (4.52-second 40-yard dash) to get to the sideline first. Due to his speed and anticipation, running backs have a hard time beating him to the edge on outside zone plays.
As a tackler, Rodriguez is consistently square and technical. He has a great habit of being able to get skinny to avoid blocks, then reset his body to properly take on the ball carrier. He uses proper form and drives through the player when executing a tackle. He rarely misses tackles, but when he does, it’s typically due to his lack of length. As strong and technically sound as he is, if the angle is wrong, his size deficiencies (specifically arm length) show up. In the NFL, he will need to be perfect more often than not to make plays.
In coverage, Rodriguez is not twitchy or loose on space, but his background as a safety allows him to diagnose routes early and muddy up passing lanes. He looks more comfortable in zone than in man, but he can carry a route deep into the secondary in both situations. While his burst is not as strong moving backward, he did not allow a touchdown in coverage last season.
Rodriguez’s “all gas, no brakes” approach to football will endear him to this Lions’ coaching staff, and his ability to bring the energy will be a positive trait for his teammates on the field.
Will he ever be a starting linebacker in the NFL?
That’s hard to say because linebackers his size are rare in the NFL, but there are several big-name analysts that believe he will reach that level of play.
“You and I are both fans of Malcolm Rodriguez,” Dane Brugler told Lance Zierlein on The Athletic’s Football Show podcast. “Rodriguez is going to a situation in Detroit where there could be a path for him in training camp, to not only get on the field…”
“100-percent, he’s a future starter,” Zierlein excitedly interrupted. “(coach) Dan Campbell is going to love him, (defensive coordinator) Aaron Glenn is going to love him. He’s got the best instincts, maybe, in the (entire) draft. He takes the best pathways to the tackle. He avoids blocks, with unbelievable talent. If he was two inches taller, with arms two inches longer, he’s a Day 2 pick. Without question.”
The Lions’ linebacking unit is full of questions right now. Beyond Alex Anzalone, it’s not clear who the other starter is. Has Derrick Barnes earned a starting role, as most are projecting? Could free agent Chris Board win the job, after being in a fringe starting role in Baltimore? Is Jarrad Davis capable of returning to Detroit and winning his old starting job back? Can Shaun Dion Hamilton return and get back in the mix after a season-ending injury last season? Or can Rodriguez take advantage of the uncertainty at the position and win the job?
Most likely, as a rookie, Rodriguez’s floor is as a rotational reserve linebacker (likely in the two-deep) and dynamic weapon on special teams. He will likely be prioritized as a subpackage option, but he should find the field more and more as the season progresses.