Lions' Brandon Copeland made most of self-imposed last shot in 2015

"I just got to keep that fire inside going into the offseason, trying to build on this year." Lions linebacker Brandon Copeland said. Leon Halip/Getty Images

ALLEN PARK, Mich. -- The thoughts came at different times. Sometimes, it'd come when Brandon Copeland was boarding a plane for a Detroit Lions away game. Other times, it would come during a practice or a Saturday evening in a hotel.

Sometimes, the thought would even hit him on the field after he made a play on special teams or took some snaps at linebacker or defensive end.

He would think back to the 2014 season, out of the NFL and sitting on his friend's couch in Baltimore playing Madden and jokingly using it as film study. How in a few months he went from a guy out of the league to one playing in it for the first time.

The 2015 season was going to be Copeland's last shot at making the NFL. If he had not made the Lions out of training camp or had not been picked up by another team, he was going to walk away. Start his second life. Use the degree he received from the University of Pennsylvania to find something else to do.

"I was sitting at home," Copeland said. "For a single year, the one year I say this is my last shot at it and to be able to come into the season, make a team and play on Monday Night Football a couple times, play in prime time on Sunday night, play in London. Play on Thanksgiving.

"You literally couldn't ask for anything more. You know, obviously, I just got to keep that fire inside going into the offseason, trying to build on this year."

Copeland isn't done with football now. He believes he's just getting started. It's a long way from where he was a year ago at this time, preparing for the first-ever veteran combine. He performed well at the combine in March and gained interest from teams.

The next month, he signed with the Lions and put himself in position for his one final shot. He did well in the preseason, showed versatility being able to play both defensive end and linebacker and had a knack for special teams.

And when final cuts came, Copeland made the roster. He ended up playing in every game for Detroit, primarily on special teams, where he had six tackles. He also started to get more work on defense during the second half of the season, appearing on 69 snaps and making eight tackles with a half-sack.

"He has understanding of what he can do," defensive end Darryl Tapp said. "If he gets more work this offseason, depending where they want him to go, want him going forward in the future, he can make leaps and bounds either as a linebacker or a defensive end."

He doesn't know what next year will bring -- he's an exclusive rights free agent so he'll almost definitely be with the Lions to start the 2016 league year -- but he also has a better idea of what he needs to improve on to make sure he sticks again: His speed, his strength, his smarts and his pass rush.

"I want to get it to the point where it becomes, you know, more so counter moves in terms of first and second down. I obviously haven't had too many snaps at D-line but playing for run and then it's pass and being an effective pass-rusher after playing for the run first and thinking run first after the play-action," Copeland said. "I'm always going to try to work on my speed and get faster.

"I'm always trying to get stronger, everyone tries to do those things in the offseason, get their hips loose and that kind of stuff."