Lions linebacker Jalen Reeves-Maybin is heading into his third year as a pro and has put a premium on keeping his weight up. By Matt Schoch, Special to The Detroit News
Allen Park — His position coach said last week that Jalen Reeves-Maybin should be moving into a leadership role with the special-teams units.
But as the defensive injuries piled up during the first week of Lions training camp, that expected leadership role extended to the starting defense — for now.
“Getting a little bit more used to it, but every day is a grind, every day is a fight,” Reeves-Maybin said. “I come out and try to get better every day. Whatever coaches ask for you to do, you try to do it to the best of your ability.”
During training camp’s first week, injuries to starting linebackers Devon Kennard and Christian Jones opened a window of opportunity for Reeves-Maybin, who spent most of Sunday’s practice with the starters.
It’s another chance for the 24-year-old, third-year player out of Tennessee to show he’s not just a special-teams player and can produce in head coach Matt Patricia’s scheme, which favors bigger, hard-hitting linebackers.
While the “bigger” part is an issue — at 6-foot, 233 pounds, Reeves-Maybin is the shortest of Detroit’s nine linebackers by an inch, and lightest by seven pounds — Patricia said the linebacker hits like a much larger man.
“You can sit there and say from a size standpoint — compare weights, that’s fine,” Patricia said Sunday. “But when you watch him play and you look at the explosiveness and the power that he generates with his lower body and his quickness, he probably hits a lot harder than some other people.”
It’s in part because of that reputation that the Lions selected him in the fourth round of the 2017 NFL Draft, despite playing just four Volunteers games as a senior because of a left bicep injury that required surgery.
Reeves-Maybin, a cousin of former Tigers and current New York Yankees outfielder Cameron Maybin, played in 14 games as a rookie, including 22 percent of defensive snaps.
However, with Patricia taking over in Reeves-Maybin’s second year, the front office has put more of a premium on bigger defensive players, bringing his slighter build into larger focus.
He ate big last offseason to grow to 230 pounds, but didn’t devour tacklers as much as his rookie season: Reeves-Maybin went from 25 tackles in 2017 to 13 last year.
In nine games last season, Reeves-Maybin played 37 percent of special-teams snaps and just 11 percent of the defensive downs before missing the final four games with a neck injury.
The offseason directive was to stay near 235 pounds throughout, which is a plan he lived up to, according to linebackers coach Al Golden.
“He maintained 235 pounds the whole spring, and it was a legit 235 pounds,” Golden said. “He’s strong, and he’s durable and he’s healthy, then we can get his talent in the game.
"He’s really bright. He can challenge anybody in terms of overall conceptual learning or approach to the defense.”
Golden also said Reeves-Maybin’s special-teams role can grow.
“We asked him to be more vocal, asked him to lead more,” Golden said. “He can give us more in the meetings because of how smart he is, asking him to make his body a great investment, become stronger.
“Understand that these seasons are very long, I need (Reeves-Maybin) to be durable, he’s done that.
“Go from being the special-teams contributor to a special-teams leader. Because he’s that kind of mind and that kind of ability.”
Reeves-Maybin says he’s up to the challenge.
“Year 3 here, I’m just trying to step up and try to be as consistent as I can,” Reeves-Maybin said. “Special teams, helping guys out, bringing guys along, just keeping that standard high for the whole room.
“I’m just coming out every day trying to get better, trying to keep my weight up, strength up, speed up, grinding on the playbook. I’m focusing on everything right now, just keeping my game up.”
Matt Schoch is a freelance writer.