Updated: Aug 30
'Float like a Butterfly, Sting like a Bee'
Those were the famous words once said by the great Muhammed Ali
But after the 2022 NFL Draft, there is a new saying that Detroit Lions fans are going to want to memorize.....
'Hit like a Freight Train, Sting like a Freight Train'
Let me explain!
For the Big 12 Conference, the 2021 College Football Season was supposed to witness the rise of the next #1 prospect in the draft, Oklahoma Sooners QB Spencer Rattler, who was supposed to lead the Lincoln Riley coached juggernaut to the conference title and maybe more. But, especially in the world of CFB, not all mainstream narratives like that come to pass. In the blink of an eye, Rattler had been benched and the Sooners defence was allowing even average offences to drop a lot of points on them. In the midst of the turbulence that would cost Rattler not just the opportunity to be #1 pick (but would result in him skipping the draft altogether to try and rescue his stock by having 1 last year in College), it was the Sooners bitter in-state rivals, the Oklahoma State Cowboys, who found themselves atop the division come the conclusion of the season with a 10-2 record, including winning the Bedlam Series, the name given to the Sooners/Cowboys rivalry. And although they would fall to Baylor in the Big 12 Championship game, they rounded off an impressive season by taking down Notre Dame in the Fiesta Bowl
At the heart of this impressive campaign for the Cowboys was their defence. In 12 regular season games , they kept opposing teams below the 21 point mark on EIGHT occasions (THREE times they kept it in single figures), which given the high scoring nature of the College game is an impressive feat. Only Oklahoma themselves with their wealth of attacking options were able to drop more than 30 points on this stubborn defence, and even then they still ended up losing. The Cowboys defence finished top 10 in the nation which saw Defensive Co-Ordinator Jim Knowles land a huge promotion to the same job at Ohio State.
Knowles secret to creating a top-10 national defence in a conference not known for it's stellar defences? A veteran core made up of highly experienced players who could cope with the expectation of trying to take down Big Brother Sooner and make the Cowboys conference challengers. And it was one of this veteran core, playing at the heart of the Cowboys defence at Linebacker, that caught the attention of the Lions coming into the draft. Some call him a man, some call him a Tackling Machine. Legend has it that he hits so hard that he took the words of Duke from Rocky Balboa, 'he gotta feel like he tried kissing the express train', and made it his own personal calling card. The man's name...
Now whilst that might be a bit of an exaggeration about the Cowboys Linebacker....wait you know what, it's not an exaggeration. The 5'11, 225lbs of Oklahoma native is a Buzzsaw at the heart of a defence, and showcases his leadership credentials with multiple selections as a Team Captain in his time as a Cowboy. With 408 Total Tackles and a further 32 Tackles For Loss during his college career, he is a leader who will be first to put himself into the thick of the action, fuelled by a burning fire to prove wrong those who have already written him off. Sound familiar? Welcome to life as a Detroit Lions fan
So why would people doubt him? In a word, Size!
Rodriguez is 5'11 and, by NFL standards, has short arms and wingspan to go with that. This can cause problems in a multitude of ways, such as missing tackles cause of lack of arm length, struggling to engage, block and shed the heavies in the Trenches, and just straight up giving him a disadvantage against anyone with more frame and reach. History will tell you that for the most part, smaller Linebackers don't work cause it's hard to overcome all these issues and find a a way to survive and thrive, so generally when they come along, especially as a day 3 draft pick, they will be dismissed by uneducated casuals banking on history repeating itself to make them look good, but never forget...there are always exceptions to the rule, and if anybody has the mindset and the skillset to be an exception to this rule, it's Malcolm Rodriguez.
What attributes can make him stand out despite the lack of size?
Leadership. As already mentioned, Rodriguez has been a Team Captain multiple times and he certainly leads by example when it comes to battling in scrimmage and in the trenches due to his vast Tackle count. But you also want to see the leadership when your giving a players tape the eye test, you want to see him come up clutch when it really matters, and you need look no further than the bitterly contested rivalry game against Oklahoma for that. The aggressive Cowboys defence limited Oklahoma to 1 TD in the second half when their backs were up against the wall (and that was courtesy of a muffed punt, not really a defensive error). Rodriguez himself tallied up 11 Tackles, a further 3 Tackles For Loss, 2 Sacks and a Pass Break Up. His second sack was critical with the Cowboys down 33-24 near the end of the third and he powered through on a blitz to sack Caleb Williams way behind the LOS to stop the drive dead and force the Sooners to punt. It was one of several critical plays the Cowboys needed with their title hopes on the line and he delivered. As far as leading by example and coming up big when it's most needed, he ticks those boxes.
Football IQ. The best Linebackers are the smartest Linebackers, and that's something I will always subscribe to. Having a high football IQ, including knowledge of routes, angles to intercept, and diagnosing plays can help you overcome athletic or size deficiencies cause you play the game quicker than everyone else in your mind which gives you a huge advantage. Watching Malcolm Rodriguez, something that sticks out about his game from the off is the vision and discipline that he possesses. He is able to quickly diagnose run and pass concepts and therefore prepare his reaction to them in plenty of time, but most critically he has the discipline to know when to make his move. The worst thing an undersized Linebacker can do is prematurely make his move on a play, if your too early you get caught up in traffic and can get taken out the play entirely if a Lineman gets his hands on you, and react too late then you mess up your Tackling angles and interception routes and with your short arm span your ability to make a play is severely compromised. To stand out amongst the crowd, which is what he will have to do to succeed, he has to have exact timing when it comes to making plays to maximise his chances of doing so, fortunately for Rodriguez, it's something he specialises in. And he knows this, listen to the guy and he is highly knowledgeable about the skills and requirements needed to play Linebacker and what he needs to do to keep progressing. It's easy for a random guy on the internet to just throw out all sorts of things when analysing a player and you might be thinking I'm talking rubbish about just how how good his IQ is and if you don't believe me I don't blame you, but I would advise you listen to the feedback that Lions Linebacker Coach Kelvin Shephard has given to us all;
''Malcolm Rodriguez is one of the smarter young players I’ve ever been around,”
“That kid, it’s because he’s a naturally smart player, but on top of that, it’s the work he puts in. This kid came in here in two days and he knew both (linebacker) spots
“There’s things I can do with Malcolm that you might have to scale back on a third-year player, to be honest,”
There you have it from the horses mouth, Rodriguez (as a day 3 pick) has already impressed his coaches that much to the point that they are saying he has 3-down potential in the NFL, he's even getting talked about as having 'Green Dot' potential. The Green Dot is a designated Linebacker who has a mic in his helmet to connect him to the DC who will entrust him with delivering the playballs and setup to the defence, that is a job usually entrusted to veterans who can deal with the dual load of that and also trying to focus on their own game which shows just how much potential they see in him
And lastly, controlled aggression. As an undersized player there is a fine line between becoming an aggressive penalty machine when trying to compensate your lack of frame and a controlled aggressive presence whom bigger guys will think twice about messing with. It all comes down to technique, strength, and again your IQ to constantly put yourself in the best situations. We know he has the IQ and the play recognition to put himself in good situations to win. But the standout feature here is Rodriguez's technical ability, it's top notch, owing to a background in Wrestling as well as in football. This elevates his ability to grapple and use leverage to win against his opponents and allows us to relax some of our worries about his size, because when he get's his hands on an opponent, even if they are much bigger, he possesses the technical prowess to beat them one on one. And strength wise, although he has some way to go with his functional strength and explosion which is to be expected of late round picks, he has shown that he possesses the strength to go toe to toe with anyone, he stacked a huge 36 reps on the bench at the combine which is offensive lineman territory. But again watching his play you can see all the technical and strength elements come together to make him a productive and game changing presence. In his last 2 years of College he has forced ELEVEN fumbles, and also recovered a further 3, a lot of which come from the sheer power he hits a running back with hence the opening lines about getting hit by a freight train, and also shows he gets his angles spot on as his rate of getting the ball out is high. He may be small but he packs a mighty punch and these fumbles are all potential game changing plays.
But he's not just aggression against the run, you will see the technique on show especially when it comes to wrapping up a running back, something the Lions have struggled with for a long time. Once again due to that wrestling background it gives him the ability to wrap up, hang on, and bring his man down, so if he can't force the ball out, he'll just bring the man down. It shows the variety in his skill set and how you can use him. And when it comes to coverage work it's pretty decent, his transition in movement in good and his tracking of players is also decent as well. Don't get me wrong it's something that will need a lot of refining at the next level but it's a good base for his coaches to work with.
And most importantly for any day 3 rookie, he has a long history of Special Teams work and good work at that, and that will be his initial route into this team.
Overall Malcolm Rodriguez leaves College having amassed 252 Solo Tackles, 156 Assisted Tackles, 32 Tackles For Loss, 7.5 Sacks, 2 Interceptions, 11 Passes Defended, 13 Forced Fumbles, 4 Fumble Recoveries, and he has 2 Touchdowns to his name as well.
So after all the praise I've given him in this article, he should be an instant starter right? Well no. Players usually get picked day 3 for a reason, there's something in their games which needs a lot of work and refinement to give them a chance to succeed. And although I hate to have to go back to it for M-Rod it is the whole size issue. He will need to show that he can compete against NFL calibre opponents who will be bigger and stronger than he is and he has to do that by becoming as strong and as technically sound as is physically possible. If he can develop the play strength to play deep into a game with the same controlled aggression and passion that he showed in College, M-Rod is going to be an absolute steal for the Detroit Lions. He already has the IQ, he has the big play ability, and he has a massive chip on his shoulder to prove all those who doubt him wrong, and no one will mould and shape that desire to prove everyone wrong into success than Dan Campbell and Brad Holmes who themselves are on the path to proving all the Detroit Doubters wrong about our ability to compete.
Do I see him threatening the starting rotation this season? Absolutely I do. Let us not forget, the Lions were in DESPERATE need of a Linebacker in the draft just gone, the unit is not great, and yet despite this days 1 and 2 came and went and not so much a sniff of a LB getting drafted by them.
Why? I mean the odds are there were that many holes that needed to be filled that LB just lost out in the BPA stakes over our higher picks in the draft. Or just maybe they took a calculated risk, a risk that could see them come away with starters in other positions in the first 2 days, and then come away with a potential long term starter AS WELL at Linebacker on day 3. Maybe they took a look at M-Rod and saw a man with all the mental tools, the leadership skills and burgeoning strength and aggression traits and went 'he's exactly the type of underdog with a point to prove who has all the traits we need and just needs the coaching to take him to the next level'. Because for me, if you can acclimatise him to the NFL, let him use his footballing brain and mesh it with a coach who knows exactly how to utilise his skill set, that's his only major hurdle to having a legitimate shot at making this side and in doing so proving that we all see the NFL calibre player just waiting to be released inside him, whilst all those who just brushed him off over a few measurements have to eat a lot of humble pie.
I'd put money on it now if I could, you will see Malcolm Rodriguez week 1 of this season, he will be the first guy to get a tackle on the very first Special Teams snap cause I guarantee he will bust his ass off to get on ST and make an impression on the coaches until they have no choice but to give him a shot in the line-up. Personally if it was me, I'd also be giving him some rotational reps in at LB against the run cause that right now is his modus operandi, to hit running backs hard and get the ball back for his offense, and given a lack of true LB starters this season, I'd like to see rotation by situation and play them all to their strengths, but that's just me.
But what I do know is, I am looking forward to watching the development of M-Rod and in 12 months (I'll proudly die on this hill) I predict he is a very big piece of the puzzle as we fix our broken Linebacker corps.