Paul Worrilow lost his job last year. It wasn’t necessarily his fault, but a combination of injuries and the emergence of standout rookie Deion Jones in Atlanta sent a player with over 100 tackles in two of his four seasons in the NFL to the bench.
With Jones sliding into his position with the Falcons, Worrilow played more special teams than he'd anticipated in 2016, and when free agency opened up, the 26-year-old went searching for a new team.
He quickly found one in the Detroit Lions, who had an opening at linebacker and would give him – at the very least – a chance to compete. But even as he spoke about his new home earlier this month, he discussed what he took away from last season, when he was more mentor than playmaker.
“My mindset was, I was playing on special teams so I was still out there,” Worrilow said. “... It didn’t matter where I was on the field. I wanted to approach it and play my best ball, play as hard as I can, and I grew a lot as a player last year. I improved. I know that for a fact.”
That might sound weird, that he improved even though he played just 156 snaps last season after three years of 740-plus reps. He mostly watched from the sideline for the first time in his career and ended up mentoring the players who were replacing him. In that, though, he was still able to learn.
“Having two young guys come in, my role a lot of times was being an outlet for them in terms of watching film, getting ready, because it was all new for them,” Worrilow said. “In a teaching environment, I learned a lot more that way.
“I got better at watching film in practice, being on the scout team, I had numerous reps against one of the best offenses to work my game, work my craft and see how good I could get. There’s no doubt in my mind my game is the best it’s been in my four years.”
That game will be challenged, though. The Lions are likely to bring in competition for both Worrilow and current starting middle linebacker Tahir Whitehead, whether that's in free agency or during the draft. Linebacker remains one of the franchise’s largest needs. The team cut DeAndre Levy and brought in only Worrilow, a player who is more suited to be a middle linebacker than out in coverage as a weakside linebacker.
Worrilow said he views himself more as a middle linebacker – the spot he often occupied in Atlanta – or on the weak side, where the Lions used Levy for years when he was healthy and a combination of players when Levy was not.
Sometimes that player was Whitehead. Other times it was veteran linebacker Josh Bynes, who remains a free agent. None of the other linebackers on Detroit’s roster has much experience at this point either. Antwione Williams, a fifth-round pick last year, is still raw and might be a better fit as a strongside linebacker. Steve Longa and Brandon Chubb were on the practice squad last year, and Thurston Armbrister played some but appears better suited for special teams.
So the chance to win a starting job will be wide open for Worrilow – and his $3 million cap hit (with $2.75 million of it guaranteed) would signify that’s what the Lions expect. The question for Detroit, though, will be where he fits into the defense.
And that might not be answered until this summer during training camp. But Worrilow believes he’ll be able to fill in wherever the Lions need – and his season as a mentor might help him do that.