He started out training camp as an afterthought, buried on the depth chart; and it seemed likely he would only play on special teams.
But he’s become one of the featured stars of “Hard Knocks” because he’s so dang good and the camera loves him — an undersized rookie who smiles and dances and just keeps making play after play.
He’s become so popular, so fast, that he is known simply as “Rodrigo.”
That’s all good fun.
But the Lions would like you to pump the brakes.
“We’re talking about the preseason,” linebacker coach Kelvin Sheppard cautioned. “This is a kid who was drafted in the sixth round and hasn’t played a down in a regular season game, and I told him the same thing.”
So he would like the hype to die down. Just for the kid’s sake.
“I know that narrative that is out there right now, and that’s a lot to put on the kid,” Sheppard said. “I would like to tone it down and kind of see where we’re at around week four or five or six, after this guy straps it on against Philly, Washington, Minnesota. We’ll see where we are at. And I hope for my sake, and for the Lions sake, that we’re still singing the same type of praises.”
I understand his larger point.
Only there’s a teensy problem with that.
The more Rodrigo plays, the more he makes plays; and the more the coaches talk about him, heaping even more praise.
Even when they aren’t trying.
“He hasn’t changed a bit,” Sheppard said. “I get the Malcolm Rodriguez hype and everything. That’s all good, and he’s deserved it. … He’s a very tunnel vision type guy, he doesn’t care who he lines up against; he doesn’t care where you play him; what the call is; his objective is to beat the guy in front of him. So I think him having that mentality and that upbringing, it kind of helps him in this situation that he’s kind of fallen into with being the celebrity — quote, unquote — of ‘Hard Knocks,’ and I mean, he deserves it in a way.”
Yes, he deserves it. He is on the verge of earning a starting position.
Which could be viewed two ways:
1. Rodriguez is the real deal; and Lions general manager Brad Holmes should be given credit for finding a sixth-round gem;
2. It’s a reflection that the Lions’ linebacker unit was so weak coming into this season, which opened up an amazing opportunity.
Both things are probably true.
Easy to miss this one
If Rodriguez is legit — and I have no doubt he is — one question comes to mind: How did the NFL miss so badly on him?
Even the Lions.
Why did they wait until the sixth round to take somebody this explosive?
“I think in the evaluation process, even for myself personally, it was hard to evaluate him,” Sheppard said. “He comes from the Big 12, where they play a lot of spread offense; and he played the will linebacker spot, he didn’t play the mike.”
Rodriguez lined up against a receiver, almost like a nickel back. He looked more like a safety down in the box than an inside linebacker.
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“It’s hard to know how that would translate to the NFL,” Sheppard said. “You got to be able to key and diagnose, you have to be able to punch and shed blockers and things like that.”
The Lions weren’t sure if he could do that.
His size (5 feet 11, 230 pounds) hurt him, too. How would a short linebacker handle going up against massive offensive linemen?
“Can you get off blocks?” Sheppard said. “It’s all stuff that I’ve said to Malcolm to his face. Now, he’s knocked down every question I’ve ever had about him. He has to now live up to expectations that he’s created for himself.”
While trying to tone down expectations, he inadvertently heaped more praise on him.
Almost by mistake.
Rookie teaching the vets, too
Rodriguez has done something else.
He has forced the other linebackers to get better.
“Malcolm is really advanced for how young he is,” linebacker Derrick Barnes said. “We learn from each other. He’s a good player, pushing me to be better and that goes around for a whole room.”
While everything seemed to click for Rodriguez almost instantly, it has taken Barnes some time to adjust.
“Derrick Barnes is coming,” Sheppard said.
Barnes, a fourth-round pick last year, is an explosive, violent player, who is still learning how to play linebacker.
“He has everything you look for from the linebacker spot below the neck,” Sheppard said.
But he’s learning.
And he’s developing.
“He came into this year raw, I mean, raw,” Sheppard said. “Ball would go right and he would go left. He is explosive and fast and he was just trying to run and go make a play, versus reading, keying and diagnosing; and that’s something he’s done better. Derrick Barnes is for sure in the mix getting reps with the ones and being a guy that is still competing to start.”
Alex Anzalone seems to have locked down a starting linebacker spot.
But it’s not crazy to think that Rodriguez and Barnes could end up playing, if not starting at some point.
One is a gem who came out of nowhere.
And the other is a raw project who is starting to figure things out.
You need some luck in every rebuild.
And if the Lions improve their linebackers like this, that would certainly qualify – no hype about it.