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Full-time DE Copeland hones skills with Lions

Josh Katzenstein
The Detroit News
Lions defensive end Brandon Copeland makes a move during defensive line drills in 
Allen Park, Mich.

Allen Park — Lions defensive end Brandon Copeland hadn’t taken a true vacation — beyond just weekend trips — in nearly three years before spending a couple weeks in Europe this January.

Copeland spent his rookie season in 2013 on practice squads in Baltimore and Tennessee, so he didn’t want to be complacent heading into Year 2. He returned to the Titans, but again failed to make the 53-man roster.

After two more weeks on the Tennessee practice squad in 2014, Copeland was out of a job and didn’t find one until the Orlando Predators, in the Arena Football League, made him an offer in March 2015.

Then, when he flew to Florida to sign with his new team, Copeland received an email saying he was accepted to the NFL’s first veterans combine, so he turned down the AFL for another shot at his dreams.

Sure enough, Copeland impressed the Lions enough to earn a one-year deal last April. Not only did he make the team, but he was active all 16 games of 2015 as a special teams contributor and backup linebacker and defensive end.

“For me, the last few years I wasn’t necessarily in a place that I wanted to be, practice squad and then the year before sitting at home and stuff like that,” he said. “So, after my first full season active, that was kind of my treat to myself and my girlfriend, and it was more kind of a time to … take a deep breath and just reflect on how hard you’ve worked to get to the point you are.”

Now, after finally playing in the NFL, Copeland is more comfortable, but he knows he still has to prove he can help the Lions again in 2016.

“Compared to last year, I wouldn’t call it night and day,” he said. “I’m still fighting to get a job and stay here in Detroit and fighting for a roster spot.”

Fortunately for Copeland, the Lions have made the fight just a bit easier in 2016. At 6-foot-3, 248 pounds, Copeland joined the team as a linebacker last year, but split his time at defensive end, the position he played at UPenn and where he started his career when Lions coach Jim Caldwell and defensive coordinator Teryl Austin were assistants with Baltimore.

Early this winter, after the Lions made changes to their personnel staff, defensive line coach Kris Kocurek called Copeland to say he’d be a full-time defensive end in 2016. Even though he started as a linebacker, Copeland’s defensive snaps were as an end last season.

“I’m not sure how they made the decision,” he said. “I’m very happy that they did. Obviously, I can play linebacker and love to be a swing man, but now this is good to just focus on something I’ve been doing my entire life.”

Copeland played just 71 defensive snaps last year but had 14 tackles and a half sack. Five of his tackles came on special teams.

Heading into the summer, the Lions’ depth at defensive end is unsettled. Ziggy Ansah and Devin Taylor are the starters, and Wallace Gilberry will likely be the top backup. If Copeland impresses in training camp, he could easily win the No. 4 defensive end job with rookie Anthony Zettel as his top competition, and coach Jim Caldwell said he expects Copeland to be a “real factor.”

“We’re trying to just narrow in on a guy who really has a skill set that sometimes it’s tough to peg because his size early on might have been a little bit too small for a defensive end,” Caldwell said, reflecting on Copeland’s intial experience as a 3-4 end in Baltimore.

“Now, he’s getting bigger. He’s always had the ability to run. He’s a sub-4.6 (40-yard dash) guy and he’s a powerful guy. So, we’re trying to put him in a spot where we’re not jumping back and forth consistently and then concentrate on an area so he knows what we’re going to want from him in terms of weight (and) knows what his responsibilities are.”

Copeland said he’s up to 260 pounds and is comfortable with the weight. He won’t be taking any vacation; seeing Barcelona, Venice, Florence, Rome and London was enough for a year, and his plans for the next month are to prepare for the season and host his first youth camp in Baltimore, his hometown, on July 9.

And Copeland is glad he won’t have to learn five positions — all three linebackers spots and both defensive end spots — again this year.

“I still know what everyone else is doing,” he said, “just because it helps me, but as a defensive end, I can now focus on defensive end for practice instead of one practice I’ve got to learn what the SAM is doing, what the MIKE is doing and then what the defensive end is doing.

“I love the challenge, but it’s also good to focus on honing up my skills.”

Washington waived

…The Lions waived wide receiver Corey Washington from injured reserve.

jkatzenstein@detroitnews.com

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