What makes a great New England Patriot? The ones who’ve meant the most — the ones who have really resonated throughout the franchise’s rise into all-time great territory — have all been smart, hard-working, versatile and willing to do whatever it takes to help make the team better.
Tom Brady, Julian Edelman and Devin McCourty are all guys who fit the bill perfectly. So are guys like Matthew Slater, Nate Ebner and Larry Izzo. Whether their role was big or small, the best Patriots have been the ones to embrace it, helping establish a championship culture that has lasted for two-plus decades.
In Brandon Copeland, the Patriots have found yet another perfect fit, and fans are going to love him.
The newly signed linebacker is everything Patriots fans value in a player. He’s a big, physical linebacker who is comfortable taking on a variety of special teams roles, and he’s also a guy with a fascinating background who has had to scratch and claw for every NFL opportunity he’s ever had.
After a decorated high school career at the Gilman School, a prep powerhouse in Maryland, Copeland went on to play Ivy League ball at the University of Pennsylvania, starring as a defensive lineman while studying economics at the prestigious Wharton School of Business.
Rather than follow his classmates into the business world, Copeland chose to pursue his NFL dream, spending two years in the football wilderness after going undrafted out of college.
“In my first year I was practice squad, second year I got cut from practice squad after two weeks and sat out the rest of the season. Basically was told you’re not good enough, did workouts and didn’t get a shot,” Copeland said. “Came back and did the combine in 2015 and that’s when I ran a 4.51 and I’ve been playing active ever since.
“For me I’ll never turn down an opportunity to be on the field,” he continued. “So for me I’m looking forward to getting out there.”
Since earning his first real shot in the NFL, Copeland has played five seasons for the Detroit Lions and New York Jets. His best season came in 2018, when he played in all 16 games with the Jets and recorded 35 tackles and five sacks, and he’s coming off a 2019 season in which he had 42 sacks and 1.5 sacks in 12 games.
Copeland signed with the Patriots this past offseason on a one-year deal worth $1.1 million, and he said that the credibility of being able to say he played with New England played a role in his decision to sign. As for his expectations with the team, Copeland gave an answer that’s no doubt music to Bill Belichick’s ears.
“I’m literally going in to learn as much as possible,” Copeland said. “I’m a linebacker body type, but I’ve realized 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. So for me, I’ll never try to take that away.”
Copeland highlighted an instance in 2016 when he saw his first significant action as a pro during a game against the Tennessee Titans. He played 51% of Detroit’s defensive snaps and 78% of its snaps on special teams, lining up at just about every position along the way.
“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,” Copeland said. “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.’” Copeland’s versatility extends well beyond the football field. During his spare time he also teaches a course on financial literacy at Penn, as well as similar courses through the NFLPA and the Boston-based nonprofit FitMoney. He also plans on donating $10,000 to a low-income Boston neighborhood to help residents buy groceries during the pandemic, following similar donations in New Jersey and Baltimore.
How does he make it all work? Compartmentalization and time management, he said, adding that when he looks back on his life, he wants to be sure he accomplished everything he set his mind to and made a difference along the way.
“I want to leave my mark on everyone I come into contact with, whether that’s the player next to me, the player opposite of me on the offensive side, the chef, the janitor,” Copeland said. “The same thing to the Patriot fans and followers, I’ve been fortunate to leave a positive mark anywhere I go, and for me that’s the most important thing. When I step on the field you know you’re going to get my all, there’s never going to be a play where you’re like ‘oh did he give his all there?’ You know you’re going to get a fighter, you know you’re going to get a dog whose going to work his tail off.”
Mac Cerullo can be reached at email@example.com. Follow Mac on Twitter at @MacCerullo.