Following the NFL draft and subsequent free agency period, the New England Patriots currently have 89 of a possible 90 players under contract. However, only 53 of them will be able to survive roster cutdowns on September 5 and ultimately make the active team. Over the course of spring and summer, just like we have in years past, we will take a look at the players fighting for those spots to find out who has the best chances of helping the Patriots keep their dynasty alive in Year One after Tom Brady.
Today, the series continues with a member of New England’s linebacker corps.
Name: Brandon Copeland
Position: Move linebacker
Jersey number: 52
Opening day age: 29
Size: 6-foot-3, 265 pounds
Contract status: Under contract through 2020 (2021 UFA)
What is his experience? Despite a productive four-year career at the University of Pennsylvania, Copeland did not hear his name called during the NFL’s 2013 draft. Instead, he had to go the free agency route to find a team — and find one he did when the Baltimore Ravens signed him to an undrafted rookie deal. He did not last long in Baltimore, though, and saw his tenure come to an end on roster cutdown day. After a month on the open market, Copeland joined the Tennessee Titans’ practice squad.
He went on to spend two seasons on Tennessee’s developmental roster, but his career took a turn for the better after leaving Tennessee in 2015: after signing with the Detroit Lions, Copeland appeared in 33 games over the next two seasons — playing primarily on special teams and as a rotational linebacker — before missing all of 2017 due to a pectoral injury. He returned the following season as a member of the New York Jets, and was given a more prominent role on defense while still playing plenty of snaps in the kicking game as well.
Over two years, Copeland appeared in 28 games for his new team as a versatile move linebacker playing both on and off the line of scrimmage. All in all, the veteran therefore has 61 in-game appearances on his NFL résumé — all of which coming after the 2015 season — while notching seven sacks as well as a pair of forced fumbles.
What did his 2019 season look like? Coming off the most productive season of his career, during which he registered five sacks and started 10 games, Copeland re-signed with the Jets in free agency via a one-year $1.75 million contract. The deal did not ensure him a spot on the club’s 53-man roster, though, and he indeed was not a part of New York’s opening day squad. Neither his role nor his on-field performance had anything to do with that, though: Copeland was suspended by the league for the first four games.
After returning from his suspension for violating the NFL’s policy on performance-enhancing substances, Copeland appeared in all 12 of the Jets’ remaining regular season games. Not taking his four-week absence into account, he was on the field for 337 of a possible 831 defensive snaps (40.6%) as a versatile front-seven defender: the seventh-year man played both off the ball as a more traditional middle linebacker, and down on the line of scrimmage as an edge/outside linebacker option.
Even without accounting for his suspension, Copeland’s playing time share decreased when compared to the 54.6% he posted the previous season. His numbers also went down along the way: after registering 38 quarterback pressures in 2018, he had just 6.5 in 2019. But while Copeland finished the season with just 1.5 sacks as well as two hits and three hurries, his role — he played noticeably more snaps off the ball than he did during his first year in New York — might have contributed to this development.
Serving as a pass rusher on just 57 snaps compared to 357 one year before, Copeland saw an increase in coverage opportunities: he dropped back 121 times and was the target of 16 pass attempts by opposing quarterbacks. They usually found success against him, completing 14 combined passes for 161 yards as well as three touchdowns. Add the fact that he also set a new career-high with nine missed tackles on 44 attempts, and his second season in New York largely turns into a disappointing one.
One silver lining was his special teams performance, though: playing 202 of 334 snaps in the kicking game after returning from his four-week absence (60.5%), Copeland registered seven tackles — second most on the team over that span behind ex-Patriot Harvey Langi’s eight — and also forced a fumble. His special teams prowess only partially makes up for the fact that he had a difficult time adapting to his new defensive responsibilities, however.
What is his projected role? Based on his stints in both Detroit and New York, Copeland can be classified as a move linebacker in the mold of Dont’a Hightower and Jamie Collins: he has experience filling an off-the-ball role as a middle linebacker but also can play on the outside as well as on the line of scrimmage. Given his two-year stint with the Jets, however, it appears that he is more comfortable in the latter role. Accordingly, it would not be a surprise if New England opted to use the 28-year-old as part of its edge rotation.
What is his special teams value? Copeland brings tremendous experience and an impressive track record in the kicking game to the table. The Jets, for example, used him on five of their units in 2019: he saw regular action on punt and kickoff return teams and also was used on both coverage squads. Furthermore, the team employed the Penn product on field goal and extra point blocking units. Depending on his defensive playing time, such a versatile role could also be in the cards for him in New England.
Does he have positional versatility? Even though he was more successful playing as an edge defender than an off-the-ball linebacker the last two years, Copeland’s versatility cannot be denied: he easily moves between assignments on the defensive side of the ball and can serve as a jack-of-all-trades option along the Patriots’ front-seven — regardless if he is playing against the pass or the run. Add his special teams role and you get a versatile player.
What is his salary cap situation? The Patriots signed Copeland to a one-year, $1.05 million contract in unrestricted free agency earlier this offseason that qualifies for the NFL’s minimum salary benefit. This means that only $750,000 of his $910,000 salary actually count against the team’s cap. Together with his signing bonus proration of $137,500 — the only guarantees in the deal — he therefore has a cap number of $887,500 this year.
What is his roster outlook? As can be seen by looking at his contract, Copeland is no lock to make the Patriots’ roster this year. Instead, he will have to prove his value as a move linebacker option over the course of training camp and the preseason. His positional versatility and experience on both defense and special teams should help him do just that, but the performance on the field compared to younger options surrounding him will ultimately be the deciding factor.