Allen Park — Even before he was highlighted on the HBO documentary series “Hard Knocks,” it was clear linebacker Malcolm Rodriguez had the chance to be one of the best stories of the Detroit Lions’ 2022 season. And even as the national spotlight grew, Rodriguez continued to thrive, earning a starting job as a sixth-round draft pick and putting together a successful rookie campaign.
But no matter what you accomplish the previous year, rarely is anything promised in the NFL. Such is the case for Rodriguez, who will have to earn his playing time all over again, facing far stiffer competition than he did a year ago.
That starts with the returning faces, Alex Anzalone and Derrick Barnes. Anzalone, a captain coming off a career year, has a tough-to-topple combination of production and trust of the coaching staff. And Barnes, entering his third season out of Purdue, appears to finally be settling into a groove, with his mental understanding of the defense fueling improved on-field performance.
On top of that, the Lions invested a first-round pick in a prototype for the position, snagging Jack Campbell out of Iowa. Assuming Anzalone will rarely leave the field, Rodriguez will have to overcome those other two challengers, and potentially others, for what amounts to one spot.
Through the first three days of camp, the trio of Barnes, Campbell and Rodriguez have been rotating those first-team snaps. And despite Rodriguez missing a good chunk of the early portion of the offseason program because of an injury, he’s been holding his own, with his high-level instincts keeping him firmly in the mix.
“He’s back, he’s healthy, he’s getting his reps,” Lions coach Dan Campbell said. “And I’ve said this before, the nature of that room and the competition that’s in there and knowing the players, …I wouldn’t be shocked if Rodriguez is starting game one. That wouldn’t shock me. It wouldn’t shock me if Barnes does. It wouldn’t shock me if (James Houston) Da Problem does.
“It’s a good room,” Campbell said. “So, we’ll let them duke it out and the good news is they’re all competitive. They don’t sulk, they don’t worry about it, they just go to work.”
If there’s an area of growth the head coach would like to see with Rodriguez, it’s in coverage. Targeted 44 times last year, he surrendered 30 completions, with more than half of the 321 yards allowed coming after the catch.
The silver lining for the Lions is if Rodriguez sees a reduced role on defense, which seems like the likely outcome, he’ll be freed up to provide a boost to their special teams. When he was drafted, it was expected he was going to play a large role with those groups, but his defensive responsibilities limited him to 71 special-teams snaps in 2022.
Campbell believes Rodriguez could help on special teams “a ton.”
“He can be really good,” Campbell said. “Shoot, on the coverage units, he’s really a heat-seeking missile. He’s got that about him. And he’s instinctive, aware and he just goes. And he can do other things as well on the return unit.”
Until he’s told otherwise, Rodriguez is going to keep battling to carve out a role on defense, but whether it’s there or on special teams, he’s eager to embrace whatever the team asks of him.
“Yeah, any chance I have to get out there and perform, be me, be around the ball, it’s good,” Rodriguez said. “Wherever I play, I’m going to go out there and give it my all.”