The future is now for Lions fifth-year linebacker Jalen Reeves-Maybin

Justin Rogers
The Detroit News

Allen Park — Individual development and a path to playing time are anything but linear for most NFL players. Jalen Reeves-Maybin is no exception to that rule. From coveted draft pick, to poor scheme fit, to an ongoing audition to be a piece of the foundation in the team's current rebuild, the Detroit Lions linebacker has always shown enough to stick around, despite multiple front offices and coaching staffs.

Now, five seasons into his career, he's finally getting a real opportunity to live up to the potential the franchise saw when they drafted him out the University of Tennessee in 2017. 

lions linebacker Jalen Reeves-Maybin will be a free agent at season's end.

"I think it's been great, just kind of being more involved in the game," Reeves-Maybin said. "I would say I think I enjoy the game no matter what role I'm playing in, but definitely just getting more snaps, being out there with the guys and making some plays, and it's definitely been a great feeling."

It's common for an NFL general manager to hype up a draft pick the night they're selected, but former Lions GM Bob Quinn seemed particularly enthusiastic about landing Reeves-Maybin in the fourth round of the 2017 event. 

More: Pesky Lions WR St. Brown earns Rookie of Month honors, striving to be true No. 1 receiver

A shoulder injury that prematurely ended Reeves-Maybin's senior season had brought his draft stock down, but Quinn was convinced the linebacker would come off the board in the late stage's of the second day. The Lions even considered taking him in the third round, but with wide receiver Kenny Golladay sitting there at pick No. 96, he became the obvious choice. 

In the fourth round, the Lions explored trading up — like Quinn would a year later to snag defensive lineman DaShawn Hand — but the team sat tight as 16 players, including two linebackers were taken before they were back on the clock. Finally, at pick No. 124, the Lions were able to get their guy. 

"Really felt fortunate that he was there," Quinn said that night. "The value was just too good to pass up."

The Lions were drawn to Reeves-Maybin's athleticism and instincts, but also acknowledged he was undersized at 230 pounds. The shoulder injury hadn't helped, since it limited his upper body workouts for more than six months. 

But, at the very least, the Lions believed he could be an immediate special teams contributor. That stemmed from his time at Tennessee, when as a struggling freshman, Reeves-Maybin used special teams as a launching point to earn defensive playing time, but refused to concede his roles with kickoffs and punts even after becoming a starter. 

"I started making plays on special teams and I feel like that was something that our whole team identified with over my four years," Reeves-Maybin explained on draft night. "It just feels like something that was a part of me. On certain units, I feel like there was no one that could play the position better than me."

As a rookie, Reeves-Maybin was among the team's leaders in special teams snaps, playing 264 across 14 games, while averaging close to 20 defensive snaps as a rotational linebacker. 

The team's defensive coordinator at the time, Teryl Austin, compared Reeves-Maybin's skill set to a bigger defensive back. 

"I think as a young guy, he’s very athletic," Austin said. "He’s got really good bend and feel. So, that’s where he really gives us some really athletically more like a strong safety-type playing linebacker. But he’s really a smart young man. He’s got a little ways to go. He’s got to get stronger. He’s got to get acclimated to our game, but I think in the last few weeks, he’s given us a really good spark in terms of athleticism, getting around the ball and making some plays."

While Reeves-Maybin's size and strength were viewed as an area needing improvement from the start, it became a nearly insurmountable issue after the team changed coaching staffs and defensive schemes in 2018. Under Matt Patricia, Reeves-Maybin simply wasn't a fit in a defense that put a premium on bulk over speed and quickness in the second level. 

To get the personnel to fit that philosophical shift, the Lions signed Christian Jones and drafted Jahlani Tavai, burying Reeves-Maybin on the depth chart in the process. And while he saw a career-high 297 defensive snaps due to injuries in 2019, he was otherwise pigeon-holed as a special teams player, peaking at 83.4% of the team's snaps in 2020, contrasted against a career-low 38 reps as a defender. 

While that might not be the dream for any player, that still is tremendously valuable to an organization. So despite a new general manager and a third head coach, fourth defensive coordinator and fifth special teams coordinator in five years, the Lions prioritized re-signing Reeves-Maybin as a free agent this offseason, giving him a one-year, $2.4 million deal to stay. 

With that contract also came the assurance he'd be given an earnest opportunity to compete for a defined defensive role for the first time since his rookie season. 

"Man, that guy, there again, we were excited to get him back because we know what he can do from a level on special teams for us," coach Dan Campbell said in March. "He’s really a four-core guy. He plays hard, he’s smart.

"You can watch him on tape," Campbell said.  "We went back and watched him in 2019 when he played at linebacker quite a bit. So he comes in, there’s no telling. You never know what you have in this player."

Reeves-Maybin's 2021 season hit a snag at the start of training camp when a COVID diagnosis kept him sidelined the first couple weeks. But after the second game of the season, the Lions made the decision to part ways with veteran Jamie Collins and install a timeshare with Reeves-Maybin and rookie Derrick Barnes. 

Playing the larger side of the share, Reeves-Maybin averaged 39 defensive snaps per game before a shoulder injury knocked him from the lineup for two games. Once he returned, injuries to teammates Alex Anzalone and Josh Woods called for Reeves-Maybin to play an even larger role.

Last Sunday, for the first time in his career, he was on the field for every defensive snap, all while wearing the green dot helmet, making him responsible for relaying the play calls from the sideline and getting his teammates aligned. He responded with eight tackles, a quarterback pressure, a pass defense and a forced fumble in the closing minutes that gave the Lions a chance to pull off comeback on the road. 

"Man, that guy is a football player," defensive coordinator Aaron Glenn said. "The thing is he loves football and you clearly see that when he’s on the field. Any time you have a player of that magnitude, you can’t help but just put him on the field, you cant help but just play him. I know he was relegated to special teams years before, but he’s shown he can be a starting inside linebacker.

"So hopefully he can continue to compete," Glenn said. "We’re always going to have competition here. He will have his chance to be our starting inside linebacker. He’s had a great year, still has a ways to go, but we’re excited about that player."

With two games remaining, Reeves-Maybin will proceed with this long-awaited audition, prior to becoming an unrestricted free agent again at season's end. And after proving he can be more than just a special teams contributor, it's easy to see him being a priority for the team, once again. 

"Obviously, we want the player back," Glenn said. "There is no doubt about that because he is a good player. Any one of our players that are free agents, we want them back. And, if he does come back, he definitely is going to get a chance to be that starting inside linebacker.”

As it stands, the two sides haven't engaged in extension talks. Frankly, the Lions don't presently have the cap space to sign a player to a new contract with any kind of meaningful signing bonus, at least not until the new league year in March. 

Reeves-Maybin isn't even thinking about that. He's focused on the end of this season and maximizing the opportunity at hand. As far as he's concerned, the contract situation will sort itself out later. But make no mistake, he'll be looking to capitalize on his increased value and the league's rising cap his second go through the process. 

"I don't think I really have any intentions, right now," he said. "People say as long as the math is mathing, (that's) the most important thing. I don't really have any intentions or ideas of where I want to be. I'm just trying to enjoy my time here, like I always have."

Twitter: @Justin_Rogers