When he was selected in the sixth round of the 2022 NFL draft, former Oklahoma State University linebacker Malcolm Rodriguez didn’t have many expectations once he stepped foot inside the Detroit Lions’ training facility in Allen Park. Not many day three picks do.
Then, very quickly, Rodriguez began to ascend. He went from a player who was originally supposed to compete for special teams snaps, to someone linebackers coach Kelvin Sheppard couldn’t keep off of the field.
Let’s take a closer look at the ‘Detroit cowboy.’
Expectations heading into 2022
Entering the draft, Rodriguez was coming off of what was a really productive senior season in Stillwater. He racked up the accolades in 2021 including First Team All-Big 12, Associated Press second team All-American, and was voted team captain by his teammates. Week in and week out, Rodriguez was the best player on Oklahoma State’s defense. But because of his relatively small frame (5-foot-11 and 230 pounds) when compared to other off-ball linebackers in the NFL, Rodriguez slid to Day 3 of the draft.
As mentioned before, because of where he was selected, expectations were not high for the rookie linebacker. And despite the Lions’ linebacker room being thin to begin the 2022 season, the road for Rodriguez to see meaningful snaps on defense was still a steep one.
Then, once the pads came on and real football was played, things began to change for the player everyone came to know as ‘Rodrigo’.
Actual role in 2022
16 games (15 starts): 611 defensive snaps played
Stats: 87 total tackles, 1 sack, 1 forced fumble, 1 fumble recovery, 2 pass breakups
PFF defensive grade: 62.8 (33rd of 54 LBs that logged a minimum of 600 snaps)
PFF tackling grade: 65.0 (27th, same criteria as above)
PFF run defense grade: 66.4 (25th, same criteria as above)
PFF coverage grade: 55.1 (40th, same criteria as above)
Once the hitting began, Rodriguez immediately began to shine. He was making serious waves early in training camp, which ended with him taking first-team defense reps..
“Watch Rodriguez,” Sheppard said on during a rant on an episode of HBO’s ‘Hard Knocks’. “(Expletive) sick of saying this about a rookie. What y’all want me to do, put him out there first? Because that’s what’s about to happen. This is nothing against you Rodriguez, you’re (expletive) playing your ass off dude, but it’s a rookie. I’m doing everything I can not to put him out there first. I’m sick of (expletive) saying it. He’s in the same (expletive) drills y’all were in.”
His ability to read his keys and react at the drop of a dime made him one of the best linebackers on the Lions’ 2022 roster. Playing next to starting middle linebacker Alex Anzalone, Rodriguez thrived at the WILL linebacker position. On top of being quick to diagnose what is happening in front of him, Rodriguez is adept at sifting through the junk inside the tackle box as well. Similar to how defensive players can lose sight of a shorter running back behind the offensive line, Rodriguez seemed to have a similar effect on opposing offenses. He would often knife his way under would-be blockers on the way to ball-carriers—something that had been missing from the Lions’ defense since the days of Deandre Levy.
however- despite giving up 48 points to Geno Smith and company (!), there were a handful of not-so-terrible moments..— morgan cannon (#freeJamo) (@MCannon313) October 4, 2022
look at Rodrigo sniff this screen out and make the play on the ball carrier pic.twitter.com/kYB9HVIE6R
more great linebacker play from Malcolm. check out that closing speed and finish pic.twitter.com/JnBEhRCrNk— morgan cannon (#freeJamo) (@MCannon313) November 29, 2022
In Weeks 1-8, Rodriguez was on the field the majority of the time the Lions were in their base defense. But after the Lions’ woeful performance in Week 8 against the Miami Dolphins, defensive coordinator Aaron Glenn and his staff made significant changes to how they were approaching defense—including personnel packages.
During the second half of the season, Rodriguez saw his snap count decrease as the defense began to find its footing. Other young players like linebackers Derrick Barnes and Chris Board started to see the field in sub-packages, which naturally cut into the opportunities for players like Rodriguez.
With that said, there were still weeks when Rodriguez would have flashes of brilliance—like his Week 12 performance against the Buffalo Bills on Thanksgiving Day. He logged 38 snaps, his second highest snap total between Weeks 9-18, and tallied 4 tackles and a pass breakup on his way to a 90.5 overall defensive grade per PFF.
RODRIGO W THE HIT STICK pic.twitter.com/A16F2n1jut— morgan cannon (#freeJamo) (@MCannon313) November 29, 2022
if you paid attention to the thanksgiving day game, then you know Malcolm Rodriguez had himself a day.— morgan cannon (#freeJamo) (@MCannon313) November 29, 2022
this is picture perfect linebacker play from "the Detroit cowboy" pic.twitter.com/G8FzwvmqVt
Outlook for 2023
Similar to other positions on the Lions’ 2023 roster, the linebacker room looks a lot different than it did this time last year. After devoting assets to other areas of the roster in previous years, Lions’ general manager Brad Holmes made some big changes to what was once a glaring weakness on the defensive side of the ball.
Detroit selected University of Iowa linebacker Jack Campbell with the 18th overall pick in the 2023 draft, and executives don’t use that kind of pick on an off-ball linebacker unless they have plans to use him from the get go. It is my belief that Campbell starts at the MIKE Week 1 against the defending champion Kansas City Chiefs—which would, in theory, slide Anzalone over to the starting WILL.
On top of adding Campbell to the mix, there is belief within Allen Park that third year linebacker Derrick Barnes has turned a corner in his development, and former Lion Jalen Reeves-Maybin is also back in Detroit. So where does this leave Rodriguez?
The Lions have said from the beginning that it is all about competition. Based on his performance last season, Rodriguez will get his opportunities to compete for a starting position come August. However, the level of competition within the linebackers room is going to look drastically different this time around.
How quickly will Campbell assert himself as the MIKE? If that happens early on, is there a chance either Rodriguez or Barnes can unseat Anzalone from the WILL? And if Campbell and Anzalone are your starters in your base defense, what will the competition for the third linebacker look like?
For reasons completely different than in 2022, the linebacker group will certainly be one to keep an eye on once training camp rolls around later this summer.