For the first four years of linebacker Jalen Reeves-Maybin’s career, he was almost purely a special teams player. Drafted by former general manager Bob Quinn in the fourth round of the 2017 NFL Draft, Reeves-Maybin immediately found himself as a key member of the Detroit Lions special teams unit, and the Jim Caldwell head coached team also found him 239 snaps worth of playing time on defense. It looked like his career was about to take off.
But when the team made a head coaching change to Matt Patricia the following year, he wanted his linebackers big and bulky—the opposite of the skill set Reeves-Maybin brought to the table. For the next three years, only Miles Killebrew played more on special teams, but the young linebacker saw his role gradually decrease to nothing. He played 110 snaps in 2018, 308 in 2019, then just 38 last year.
However, when Dan Campbell and his new coaching staff got their hands on Reeves-Maybin—re-signing him to a one-year deal—they knew they were getting more than just a special teams player.
“I think that we had re-signed him with the idea that he was going to get some opportunities to play more defensive football for us,” special teams coordinator Dave Fipp said.
It didn’t happen right away, though. With veterans Alex Anzalone and Jamie Collins Sr. fully entrenched as starters for the team, Reeves-Maybin fell back into a familiar role on special teams, logging 35 special teams snaps and just five on defense in the first two games combined.
However, when defensive coordinator Aaron Glenn saw the passion and intensity that Reeves-Maybin was showing on special teams, he had no choice but to put him on the field. The Lions released Collins after playing in just two games, and Reeves-Maybin took over as a key contributor in Week 3, then officially became the team’s starter in Week 5.
“Man, that guy is a football player,” Glenn said. “The thing is, he loves football. You clearly see that when he’s on the field. Anytime you have a player of that magnitude, you can’t help but just put them on the field and you can’t help but just play them.”
Reeves-Maybin took the opportunity and ran with it. Outplaying rookie fourth-round pick Derrick Barnes, Reeves-Maybin only saw his role grow within the defense. He’s forced fumbles in two late-game situations this year, giving the offense a chance to win the game, and just about every week you’d hear a Lions coach preach to the media about how impressed they have been with his play.
He was the first person head coach Dan Campbell mentioned this week when asked who was among his most reliable players this year.
“When he’s been out there on defense and on special teams, he makes plays,” Campbell said. “He’s a football player. That doesn’t go unnoticed.”
A couple weeks ago when the Lions lost both Anzalone and Josh Woods to injury against the Arizona Cardinals, it was Reeves-Maybin who had to step up and assume play-calling duties for the defense—something he had never done. He assumed the responsibilities and was a key part of a defensive performance that held Kyler Murray and a hot Cardinals offense to just 12 points on the day.
“Reeves has to play 72 plays and he’s the green dot and he played all out,” Campbell said. “It wasn’t perfect, but I’ll tell you what, the guy made a ton of plays for us. And so, that’s a credit to him.”
Reeves-Maybin is entering the final two games on his contract, as he is an unrestricted free agent in 2022. But his re-signing almost sounds like a formality at this point.
“He’s shown that he can be a starting inside linebacker,” Glenn said. “So hopefully, he continues to compete. We’re always going competition here, and 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.”
Glenn was asked to clarify if he meant that Reeves-Maybin will have his chance to start next year, seeing as he was still not signed for 2022 season yet.
“I’ll tell you this, he has the capabilities to be that,” Glenn said. “He’s a free agent, right? Any of our guys that are free agents, we’d love to have those guys back. Obviously, we want the player back. There’s no doubt about that because he is a good player. Anyone of our players that are free agents, we want them back. And if he does come back, he’s definitely going to get a chance to be that starting inside linebacker.”