Jacksonville, Fla. — Brandon Copeland missed most of the 2014 season after being cut by the Tennessee Titans last September, but the 24-year-old wasn’t just sitting around waiting for a call.
As a free agent, he saw constant reminders that he was no longer playing football, whether it was the NFL games on TV three days a week or receiving texts from the league’s players association.
“It’s just like every single thing reminds you of what you’re not living out right now,” he said.
So, Copeland found a way to use the reminders as motivation and a learning opportunity, working out while watching Titans and Baltimore Ravens games — the team that gave him his first chance in the league.
“There were times where I would just literally put (the game) on, put it on mute, put on music and just run on the treadmill to just be (ticked) off,” he said. “I used it for different reasons, but most of the time it was to motivate myself or to learn.”
Copeland’s hard work paid off in the form of an opportunity with the Lions this year, and even though he didn’t contribute much statistically in the first two exhibition games with two total tackles, his versatile skill set has him in contention for a spot on the 53-man roster.
During his college years at Penn, Copeland played defensive end and entered the league at 6-foot-2, 265 pounds, but when he signed with the Ravens as an undrafted rookie in 2013, the coaches had him make a difficult transition to inside linebacker. He had to lose weight and learn a new technique.
Baltimore, which had Lions defensive coordinator Teryl Austin on staff at the time, put Copeland on the practice squad for the first few weeks of his rookie year, but after the Ravens cut him, the Titans added him to their practice squad. In 2014, he failed to make Tennessee’s roster, and although he landed on the practice squad again, the Titans waived him in Week 3.
During the time off, Copeland said he took time to evaluate the game as well as himself as a player. He reshaped his body, started running faster and got smarter about the game and special teams, which would have to be his meal ticket in the NFL. Desperation made him a completely different player, and now, he’s a lean 248-pound linebacker.
Copeland landed an opportunity earlier in 2015, but it wasn’t in the NFL. He was ready to join the Arena Football League’s Orlando Predators in March, but on the night he flew to Florida for his new job, he received an email saying he’d been accepted to the veteran combine two weeks later.
“I just told (the Predators) I couldn’t go through with it just because I knew the potential I had to change my reality at the veteran combine,” he said. “I couldn’t go through a training camp and mess up something.”
At the league’s first veteran’s combine, Copeland ran the 40-yard dash in 4.52 seconds, significantly better than the 4.72 he posted coming out of college. He earned a handful of offers, but ultimately joined the Lions and reunited with Austin.
And even though Copeland is faster, the Lions aren’t using him exclusively as a linebacker. During training camp, Copeland spent time in nearly every practice working with the defensive ends.
“He’s all the way down in weight, but he still has the pass-rushing traits,” Austin said. “So, we can play him off the ball, and he can also give us a little flexibility in the rush package. So, our way to get him some reps rushing is to play him at defensive end, but I think what it does is it allows him to develop his rush package here in the NFL and so if he is a linebacker and he is coming off as a blitzer he’s getting those rush reps.
“He does have a unique skill set because he is really fast, he’s really explosive and so we’re just trying to see what he can do this preseason.”
In the first exhibition against the Jets, he played exclusively on special teams. Last week against Washington, he had two tackles during his 21 defensive snaps, but in order to make a Lions team loaded at linebacker, he knows he must impress on special teams, which is why he spent so much of his time off training to be better in the third phase.
“This is the feeling I missed,” Copeland said of being back in the NFL. “I just got to make sure my play shows how grateful I am to be out here, grateful I am for the opportunity and this time take advantage of the opportunity and not let it slip again.”