Lions notes: Rookie Malcolm Rodriguez making case for starting linebacker role
Westfield, Ind. — Detroit Lions rookie linebacker Malcolm Rodriguez has forced his way into first-team defensive reps during his inaugural training camp and will now use the next couple weeks, beginning with the team's joint practices with the Indianapolis Colts, to stake his claim to a starting job.
Lions coach Dan Campbell said the competition for that spot could go down to the final days of the offseason, while also acknowledging this week of practice would likely play a huge role in the evaluation.
"We’re getting two really good days in pads against a damn good opponent," Campbell said Wednesday. "We’re going to find out a lot by the end of (Thursday)…but it’ll sort itself out."
Campbell was asked whether he was comfortable with the idea of starting Rodriguez, a sixth-round draft pick, in the season opener. Again, the coach deferred to seeing how the rookie handled the week ahead.
"We’ll see," Campbell said. "I mean that’s what this is about. Let’s see if we can be comfortable with him."
Rodriguez credited his self-confidence and ability to quickly absorb the playbook for his rapid rise up the depth chart. Publicly, he's doing his best to remain humble, but that confidence came through when asked if he felt ready for a starting job.
"If it comes that way — I mean if the coaches want me to start, I'll start," Rodriguez said. "It's not a big deal. It's just one of those things where I'll step in that role and just be that vocal leader out here."
The coaching staff's favorable opinion of Rodriguez hasn't been a secret, but the documentary series "Hard Knocks" illuminated how deeply of an impression he's made, particularly with position coach Kelvin Sheppard. In an expletive-laced rant, he attempted to use Rodriguez's camp performance to motivate the other players fighting to start and for jobs further down the depth chart.
Asked how those other linebackers have reacted to having that private call-out broadcast publicly, Campbell said he's been pleased with the response from the collective, while also praising the unit for helping push Rodriguez to the level he's already at.
Whether he ends up starting — something no Lions rookie selected in the sixth round or later has done to begin a season in more than two decades — Rodriguez is making an impression with nearly everyone on the roster.
"That's the guy right there," running back D'Andre Swift said. "I mean he's going to be so good in this league. He's doing everything right, got the grit, nice mindset. You don't really see that too much from young rookies. Real mature, attacking with the right approach, very coachable. He's the guy."
Don't expect to see Lions quarterback Jared Goff taking the field for this week's game against the Colts. After leading a 10-play touchdown drive in the preseason opener, Goff will get all the work he needs during the joint practices.
In fact, he'll arguably get more and better work than he would have in an exhibition game, given the team doesn't have to be nearly as vanilla with its play calling and can emulate various, controlled scenarios, as opposed to those that are dictated by unpredictable game situations.
"It’s as close as you can get without being in a game," Goff said. "It’s competitive, it’s fun, it’s chippy at times, but it’s really — we want to compete. And if we’re not going to play in the preseason game, this the best thing.
"In some cases, it’s better because there is limited risk of injury, right? You can control it and you can do what you want for the most part (and) the quarterback shouldn’t get hit. So, it’s a way you can control it and can be better than preseason games."
Even though the sample size was small, the touchdown drive in the opener further raised expectations for how effective Detroit's offense can be a year after being one of the lowest scoring units in the NFL.
Remember, Goff was hands-on during the offseason, helping shape the offensive scheme alongside first-year coordinator Ben Johnson. Several months into the process, the vision is coming together better than expected in the quarterback's mind.
"I feel great about it," Goff said. "If you tell me where we’re at right now six months ago, I’d be pretty happy about it. We’re doing good things. With that being said, there’s still plenty of things to clean up, for myself certainly, plenty of things to clean up that I can do better. And I think that’s what I spoke to earlier, the standard that we have now is just different. It’s the way it should be, and it’ll continue to rise.”
Two days after exiting practice early, Campbell offered up a positive update on guard Halapoulivaati Vaitai.
"He should be good, all good," Campbell said. "He had a little spasm, but he’s good.”
Vaitai was on the field, along with the rest of the team's starting group, for Wednesday's practice. Detroit's offensive line is projected to be a strength for the second consecutive season, but the starting five failed to share the field for a single snap in 2021 due to a number of injuries.