Lions' jack-of-all-trades Copeland wants promotion to starter
Allen Park — When you’re not a star or a high-round draft pick in the NFL, it’s the more you can do that carves that path to a roster spot. Position versatility, the ability to contribute on special teams, that’s how many players survive cuts after the preseason.
For the past two years, that’s been the ticket for Brandon Copeland. But in his third season with the Detroit Lions, the do-everything defender is looking to lock down a starting job.
Copeland has been on both sides on cut day. The Penn product nearly saw his NFL dream die after one season, without having played a single snap. But a second opportunity came knocking in 2015 when he delivered an impressive performance at the inaugural veteran combine, an event designed to showcase the talents of young players without a job.
Since then, he’s stuck, serving as a human Swiss Army knife for the Lions. He’s been listed as both a linebacker and defensive end, splitting his practice time between the positions. He’s also been one of the team’s most important special teams performers, playing a team-high 305 snaps with the groups last year.
He rarely knows where he’ll be practicing until he steps on the field that day, but Copeland has embraced his role and impressed teammates with his versatility.
"A lot of people don’t know this, but we were roommates for a long time,” defensive end Kerry Hyder said. “The guy is impressive. I joke all the time and say the guy can play all 11 (positions). The guy is so versatile. He fits in wherever he’s needed, at defensive end, at linebacker. I’m sure if the team needed help at corner, he’d find a way to do it. He’s such a great team player.”
Copeland came into training camp last season listed as a defensive end. He had packed on a few more pounds, anticipating more of a permanent switch to the position he had played in college. But when injuries devastated Detroit’s linebacking corps in the middle of the year, the team looked to him to step in and fill the void. He even started at linebacker Week 8 in Houston.
This offseason, it’s nearly been the opposite. Still listed as a defensive end, Copeland had seen much more time at linebacker through the early portions of the offseason, until injuries issues cropped up along the defensive line.
And while his focus remains split, what’s noticeably different this offseason is where Copeland appears to slot in on the depth chart. Typically a backup used only in short-yardage situations, he’s often lined up on the first-team defense at strong side linebacker. He’s competing with arguably better fits for the spot in Antwione Williams and Steve Longa, but there’s little room left to doubt Copeland’s ability to rise to the occasion.
“Yeah, that’s exactly what I’m here for,” Copeland said. “I’d be lying to you if I told you I was looking to play a backup role. I’m a competitor. I watched a video of Jay-Z a few weeks back — and he said this years ago — he said, ‘I’m not here to be second-best.’ I’m not here to try hard for second. I’m trying to be the best at everything I do.”
Copeland spent his time away this offseason attempting to find tune his athleticism. He admits it’s a tricky balancing act managing his body, finding the right weight to hold up playing down on the line and the quickness to effectively move in space.
“That’s where the mental part kicks in,” Copeland said. “That’s where the athleticism kicks in. You have to keep that leanness about you so that you can move and cover a tight end all the way up the field. You also have to be able to set an edge against a 330-pound tackle.”
He also draws continual inspiration from his grandfather, Roy Hilton, who played 11 years in the NFL.
“He played defensive end at 6-foot-6, but he might have been 215 pounds,” Copeland said. “For him, it was all about mindset. He would always tell me if you put two people in a trash can, me and another person, I’m the one coming out.
“For me, I don’t care how big you are, I don’t how strong you are, it might not be perfect technique of a defensive end, the technique of a 290-pound defensive end, my job is to get the job done,” Copeland said. “That’s what I get paid to get and what I’ll find a way to do.”
Copeland will continue to state his case for a starting job when the Lions travel to Indianapolis this week for a pair of joint practices and a preseason game with the Colts.