He’s been overlooked, undervalued, pigeon-holed, and hurt. He has year-long gaps in his resume. He’s been marginalized because guys from his school are supposed to rule the world, not the line of scrimmage.
Now, he has the opportunity of a lifetime.
There’s no shame in admitting that you’d never heard of Brandon Copeland before the Jets signed him to a one-year free-agent contract this offseason. The 27-year-old outside linebacker has toiled in anonymity for five years, bouncing from the Ravens to the Titans to the Arena Football League to the NFL Veteran Combine to Detroit. He hasn’t played a single down in a year.
Undrafted Ivy Leaguers have a short shelf life in the NFL, so it’s a wonder that Copeland, who has opened eyes in the run-up to the Jets preseason opener Friday night, has made a strong early impression to fill the Jets’ biggest defensive area of need.
“I’ve seen so many things,” said Copeland, a three-time All-Ivy player at the University of Pennsylvania. “I’ve had such a roller-coaster career that I think I’m just happy to be playing. I’ve been on the practice squad. I’ve been cut and fired for a whole year. I tore my (pectoral muscle) last year and sat out. I just wanted any opportunity… If you want me to line up on punts, cool. It’s a blessing. If you want me to line up at D-end, if you want me to line up at safety, if you want me to line up at right guard, shoot, I’ll try it.”
Todd Bowles has given Copeland an opportunity in training camp in his particularly irritating search for an edge pass rusher. The Jets haven’t been able to consistently rush the passer in seemingly forever. Bowles’ teams have ranked 27th and 28th in sacks the past two seasons without a dynamic presence on the edge.
The 6-3, 250-pound Copeland has caught the eyes of his coaches this past week, prompting Bowles to elevate him to the first team for the last four practices.
“Cope has shown some good speed,” outside linebackers coach Kevin Greene said.
Copeland’s speed and athleticism could earn him a meaningful role on defense after predominantly playing special teams in two seasons with the Lions. Copeland, an undersized defensive end in the Lions’ scheme at the time, played just 6.8 percent and 13.2 percent of Detroit’s defensive snaps in 2015 and 2016, respectively. He logged 69 percent and 73 percent of the special teams snaps before missing all of last season with a torn pectoral muscle suffered in the preseason opener.
Bowles and defensive coordinator Kacy Rodgers are looking for someone to play opposite Jordan Jenkins, emerging from an outside linebacker group that includes Copeland, Josh Martin, Dylan Donahue, Lorenzo Mauldin, David Bass, Obum Gwacham and undrafted rookie Frankie Luvu.
Copeland, whose 22 career tackles and 0.5 sack in 32 career games obviously don’t jump off the page, has always just asked for an even playing field. May the best man win.
“I believe in my work. I believe in God. I believe in myself,” Copeland said. “Just give me an opportunity where you say everything is even… And if I made a tackle, then Brandon Copeland made that tackle. … In my early years, I felt like all my plays were discounted. If I made a play, it was more like, ‘The guy from Alabama turned (the runner/receiver) in (to me) … yada yada yada… The Penn guy didn’t really make it.’
If I find a place where they just let my play speak for itself, then I’ll fight with anybody. I don’t mind doing that. Because I’ve outworked those people.”
Bowles, frankly, couldn’t care less where anyone went to college. Big school. Small school. Ivy League. State school. He’s in the business of playing the best players regardless of affiliation.
Copeland couldn’t have asked for a more optimal situation. The Jets edge rusher gig is wide open. So, he made sure to prepare as best he could in the run-up to training camp, logging 8-9 hours each day with trainer Troy Jones at Brandon Marshall’s gym Fit Speed near Fort Lauderdale, Fla., (8:30 am – 4 pm) before doing more work on his own at a local L.A. Fitness.
“You have such a small window to do this,” said Copeland, who also spent a week in Hawaii training with Eagles defensive lineman Michael Bennett. “I’ve seen it close and open back up. So, I’d rather work my tail off and maximize my recovery in other ways through stretching, sauna, cold tub. I wouldn’t want to look back and think, ‘I should have been in a little better shape’ or ‘I should have run that extra gasser.’”
Although Copeland has lasted longer than most Ivy Leaguers in the NFL, he’s far from finished. He aced plenty of exams at Penn. Now, he’s ready to pass his biggest career test that could change everything for him.
“I have goals of what I’m trying to get done in this league and in life,” Copeland said. “I know I’m one play away from losing that. So, I need to work every single play to keep coaches talking about me, to keep Coach proud, to keep Coach happy… But for today, for right now, Brandon Copeland can’t complain.”
He’s getting the opportunity that he always wanted.