It took Brandon Copeland two years before he made it to an NFL 53-man roster, breaking back into the league after running a 4.51 40-yard dash at a 2015 veteran free agent camp after spending the 2013 with the Ravens in training camp and then the Titans practice squad. He was out of football in 2014 but never gave up and was rewarded by becoming a core special teamer for the Lions in 2015, playing in all 16 games.
Since that time, Copeland's versatility has helped him carve out a solid NFL role, one that has not been without additional adversity with a torn pec causing him to miss the entirety of the 2017 season. This offseason, Copeland signed with the Patriots and was excited to join a team that he long admired, especially while playing for the divisional rival Jets.
"Going against the Patriots they're a team that does not make a lot of mistakes," said Copeland. "As a unit, they move collectively. When you look at them on film you could tell there was a lot of trust of people being in the right position. Not too many guys trying to do multiple jobs, not feeling like they have to overcompensate for the man next to them. I think they vibe really well as a team in the years that I've looked at them and gone against them."
Copeland's greatest asset has been his ability to play all over the defense. His grandfather Roy Hilton had a successful 10-year NFL career, playing nine of them with the Colts and being part of Super Bowl III as a defensive end. Copeland thought that was where he'd spend his NFL career as well but has seen his role expand over his tenure, something he took pride in after playing multiple positions for the Lions early in his career.
"I played defensive line for my entire life," recalled Copeland. "I got to Baltimore and I'm a middle linebacker. From the jump, you go from going forward your entire life to now, the year after Ray Lewis retires, now you're making calls.
"What has kept me in the league for this long and at the level I've played at is the fact that I can do multiple things at a high level. I remember there was a game years ago in Detroit where I went from playing defensive end in a four-point stance, to outside linebacker, Sam Linebacker, middle linebacker, dime linebacker and all four special teams. That was my first active seasons in the NFL and I'm like 'wow, I'm probably the one guy in this arena that can play eight different positions today like this.'"
That versatility is a hallmark of the Patriots defense and will certainly be an asset to the team as they look to replace two starting linebackers. Assimilating into a new team during the pandemic has proven to be a challenge for all the players and Copeland has missed the chance to get to know his new teammates.
"It's definitely different not being able to be with the team," reflected Copeland. "Especially being a first-year guy, obviously I'm not a rookie, I know what to expect. It's just something different getting in the locker room with guys, and working next to guys, pushing each other in workouts so they can start to understand who I am as a person and a teammate."
But he's already learned an important lesson that made him sound like an experienced Patriot veteran.
"One of the best things I learned as a rookie, you can't stress what you can't control," said Copeland in Belichick-ian fashion. "All I can control is my workout for the day, my nutrition, my habits, the things that I actually have control over I'm focusing on making sure I maximize the hell out of those each and every day."
As versatile as Copeland is on the field, he's equally versatile off the field, teaching an online financial literacy course, running a foundation and preparing for a virtual football camp that is about developing character as much as it is about developing football skills.
How does he balance it all out? Copeland said it's all about compartmentalization, focusing solely on the task at hand and that has enabled him to be productive both on the field and in the community, two things that will make him a great fit as a Patriot.
"For me, compartmentalization is everything, then obviously prioritization," said Copeland. "Just making sure you do everything necessary to make sure that you don't leave this game, this practice, this rep, with regret. The only way I can do that is by making sure I exhaust myself in that preparation and that training.
"There's a lot of people in this world who leave things with regret because they didn't put in that extra ounce, that extra workout, that extra time and that will never be me."