Detroit Lions rookie Malcolm Rodriguez trending towards winning starting LB job

Detroit Free Press

WESTFIELD, IND. — The longer training camp goes, the more it looks like rookie linebacker Malcolm Rodriguez could be a Week 1 starter for the Detroit Lions.

Rodriguez, a sixth-round pick out of Oklahoma State, joined presumptive starter Alex Anzalone with the Lions’ first-team defense at the start of Wednesday’s joint practice with the Indianapolis Colts, and Lions coach Dan Campbell said he is comfortable giving Rodriguez starter snaps Sept. 11 against the Philadelphia Eagles if that’s how the position battle shakes out.

Derrick Barnes split first-team reps with Rodriguez during the Lions’ installation period Wednesday, and veteran Chris Board is among others also in the mix for a rotational role at linebacker.

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“We’ll see,” Campbell said. “I mean, that’s what this is about. Let’s see if we can be comfortable with him.”

Rodriguez has been the unexpected star of Lions camp, outplaying his draft position and impressing coaches and teammates with his disruptive play.

In last week’s preseason-opening loss to the Atlanta Falcons, Rodriguez made two tackles, including one on the Lions’ opening kickoff.

“That’s the guy right there,” Lions running back D’Andre Swift said. “He’s going to be so good in this league. He’s doing everything right. Got the nice mindset … You don’t really see that too much from young rookies. Real mature, attacking it with the right approach. Real coachable. He’s the guy.”

A four-year starter at two different positions (safety and linebacker) at Oklahoma State, Rodriguez said he always believed he belonged in the NFL and has found comfort in playing a similar defense to the one he starred in in college.

“Just one of those things you just got to have confidence,” Rodriguez said. “At this level, you’ve just got to bring your own confidence and you got to act like you belong here, so it’s just one of those things, I come to work every day and just put myself in my shoes and be like, ‘Hey, I’m here for a reason.’ So like I said, just come to work.”

If Rodriguez wins a starting job, he will join offensive guard Jonah Jackson (third round, 2020), receiver Quintez Cephus (fifth round, 2020) and linebacker Jahlani Tavai (second round, 2019) as rookies selected after the first round to start a season opener for the Lions in the past five years.

Campbell said this week’s joint practices against the Colts will go a long way towards solving one of the Lions’ last undecided starting jobs.

“There’s been some dang good linebackers that have had a lot of success in this league that weren’t the biggest guys in certain positions,” Campbell said. “But I would tell you the reason (he has had success) is because he is very aware and he sees things quick, he’s got high FBI (football intelligence) for a young guy, no different than (Amon-Ra St. Brown) last year. Just, man, he can see the game, he can feel the game, he’s aggressive. He plays hard, he’s a finisher. And he can run. He’s got speed”

Real ID

Campbell said his goal with this week’s joint practices is to identify “the guys we think we’re going into Philly with and getting them honed in, getting them really good work, and see if we can get better in those units.”

“And then the areas where we don’t quite have them shored up, man, who is going to start at this position?” Campbell said. “Let’s figure out who’s going to take that next leap, man. Who wants that spot? Linebacker position, does somebody want to go take that spot? So that’s really the next progression.”

Most Lions starters are not expected to play in Saturday’s second preseason game, in which, Campbell said, the focus will be on playing time and development for “the very young guys.”

“If we’re not going to play in a preseason game this is the next best thing we’re going to get,” Lions quarterback Jared Goff said. “And in some cases it’s better because there is limited risk of injury. You can control it and you can do what you want for the most part, a quarterback shouldn’t get hit. So it’s a way that you can control it and can be better than preseason games.”

Contact Dave Birkett at dbirkett@freepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @davebirkett.

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