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Lions LB Malcolm Rodriguez brings skill set molded by playing safety, wrestling

Allen Park — In the Detroit Lions' search for fiery competitors to build a culture around, they stumbled upon a rookie linebacker in Malcolm Rodriguez who has never done well with losing. 

As a sophomore at Wagoner (Oklahoma) High School, Rodriguez finishing second in the state wrestling championships in the 152-pound weight class. That's a remarkable accomplishment for an underclassman, but it wasn't good enough.

"It kinda fueled me for my last two years, I'm not going to lie," Rodriguez said. 

Between seasons, he packed on 30 pounds of mostly muscle and was able to go 29-3 and win the state championship in the 182-pound division a year later. Then, as a senior, he went undefeated en route to another championship, this time at 195 pounds. 

On the football field, Rodriguez was similarly successful. A two-way player, he quarterbacked three state championship teams without losing a game his final two years. On defense, he was named player of the year by The Oklahoman in 2016 for his contributions at safety. 

Oklahoma State recruited Rodriguez to play safety and he spent his first two seasons at that position before bulking up to 220 pounds and switching to linebacker.

At linebacker, applying the skills he developed both at his former position and on the wrestling mats at Wagoner, he thrived. He earned All-America honors from a number of publications as a fifth-year senior in 2021 after racking up 129 tackles (16.0 for a loss), 3.0 sacks, four forced fumbles and an interception. 

Having played safety, Rodriguez is comfortable in coverage. He flashed that ability during Saturday's rookie minicamp, sticking tight to a receiving target running a deep route and breaking up the pass, drawing excited praise from his new position coach in Detroit, Kelvin Sheppard. 

"Being able to run and open up is one of those things that backers do now in the league," Rodriguez said. "To be able to cover wheel routes and stuff like that is a huge plus for a linebacker."

As for the wrestling background, Rodriguez said it helps him with his pursuit angles and beating blocks, which is critical to his success, since he's undersized for the position at 5-foot-11, 232 pounds. 

"I'm able to see different angles and I get skinny where others can't," he said. "It's one of those things, I've been in a lot of positions in wrestling, so it's just kind of natural for me to use my instincts and kinda slip through things. 

As a sixth-round pick, Rodriguez fully understands he'll need to earn his spot in Detroit. He's aiming to provide immediate value on special teams, while working to climb his way up from the bottom of the linebacker depth chart. 

Rodriguez takes some inspiration from Bobby Wagner, a six-time All-Pro with Seattle who signed with the Rams this offseason. Despite measuring in at a slightly larger 6-foot, 242 pounds, he's epitomized not being limited by his size. 

"He's not the biggest guy, but he's just one of those smart dudes," Rodriguez said. "He's got the angles. He definitely watches a lot of film. It's one of those things that if you have the mechanics and the technique down, you're able to make plays and visualize what's happening."

Twitter: @Justin_Rogers

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