Detroit Lions preview: Derrick Barnes is starting to put it together

Originally 114th overall by the Detroit Lions in 2021 NFL draftlinebacker Derrick Barnes was the sixth player selected by Lions general manager Brad Holmes in his first draft class as Detroit’s top decision maker.

Barnes began his collegiate career at Purdue as a running back, and when you see his movement on the field, you understand why he was recruited to play the rock.At 6-foot, 238 pounds, Barnes is an elite athlete at the linebacker position. He has a powerfully built frame, good lateral agility and some serious downhill speed.

Barnes is now entering his third year in Detroit turns heads because of his development as an off-ball linebacker. Where does he fit into the Lions’ new linebacker space?

Let’s take a closer look in the next iteration of our 2023 list sample series.

Previous List Previews: Aidan Hutchinson, Jameson Williams, Josh Paschal, Kerby Joseph, James Mitchell, Malcolm Rodriguez, James Houston, Chase Lucas, Obinna king, Greg Bell, Penei Sewell, Levi Onwuzurike, Alim McNeill, Ifeatu Melifonwuand Amon-Ra St. Brown.

Derrick Barnes

Expectations heading into 2022

After a 2021 season in which the vast majority of the rookie class made an impression, there was reason to believe Barnes would take a significant step in his development in 2022. As mentioned above, Barnes hasn’t played off-ball linebacker very long. Furthermore, linebacker is one of those positions where it takes live reps to really get the feel of what’s going on around you. Like Barnes, a player can have all the physical tools in the world, but if they don’t know how to key and process quickly – then it usually doesn’t matter.

Barnes, along with veteran linebacker Alex Anzalone, free agent acquisition Chris Board and 2021 sixth-round pick Malcolm Rodriguez, would continue to form the Lions’ off-ball linebacker group.

Actual role in 2022

13 games (4 starts): 346 defensive snaps, 161 special teams snaps
Statistics: 47 total tackles, one sack, one pass, five QB hurries
PFF defensive grade: 62.3 (50th of 80 LBs who logged at least 300 snaps)
PFF run defense grade: 76.8 (23rd of 80 lbs)
PFF tackling grade: 56.0 (56th of 80 LBs)
PFF pass rush grade: 60.2 (66th out of 80 LBs)
PFF coverage rate: 46.8 (71st of 80 LBs)
PFF special teams grade: 69.1

If you saw the 2022 edition of HBO’s “Hard knocks”, then you understand how the story of the linebacker position played out – at least during the first half of the season. Rookie linebacker Malcolm Rodriguez took the series by storm and created a lot of buzz with his overall feel for the position. And because of his strong play early in training camp and throughout the preseason, Rodriguez was able to lock down a starting spot at the WILL linebacker position along with Anzalone at MIKE — leaving Barnes as the first linebacker off the bench.

Like the rest of the Lions’ defense early in 2022, Barnes had his issues when he was on the field. Inconsistent play along the defensive line put extra pressure on Detroit’s linebackers, who had their own problems with down-to-down stability.

Then, after schematic changes were made following the Lions’ Week 8 loss to Miami Dolphins at home, Barnes began to see an increase in his snaps. Defensive coordinator Aaron Glenn began employing him in certain ways, including as a blitzer — against both the run and the pass.

The physical skills I mentioned at the beginning of this article? They began to blink more often as Barnes began to figure things out.

I can almost guarantee you linebackers coach Kelvin Sheppard got really excited when this play came up during film study. Barnes wastes no time, goes downhill and continues the game Jacksonville Jaguars‘ running back Travis Etienne. That’s exactly what Sheppard and the rest of the defensive coaching staff want from their linebackers — don’t waste time, get downhill, make the play in front of you.

Outlook for 2023

The Lions’ linebacker position would have been a group to watch even though the Lions returned Barnes, Rodriguez and Anzalone. Now that we have to factor in the Lions’ other first-round draft pick from the 2022 NFL draft, University of Iowa linebacker Jack Campbell, it could be that position to watch in training camp.

Barnes finished the 2022 season on a high note and has impressed the coaches with his progress this summer – especially when it comes to the mental aspect of his game.

“So, the main thing for me is just not letting the mental aspect hold you back from where you want to be,” Barnes said of his development since coming into the league. “And that’s what I’ve been doing, studying even more than I ever have. You know, asking questions and all the things that I’ve done in previous years. But just taking it to the next level and just come out here and show everybody what I can do and what I’m capable of and what I’m all about as a player.”

If it weren’t for the addition of Campbell to the mix, we’d probably be discussing the WILL linebacker battle as a two-man competition between Rodriguez and Barnes. However, you’d have to believe the Lions hadn’t drafted Campbell at 18 to have him anywhere other than MIKE — at least long-term. And since Anzalone is likely the starter at WILL and the wearer of the green dot, that leaves things open for the third linebacker.

Who will be the third linebacker when the Lions choose to go with heavier personnel? Rodriguez proved he was a capable NFL linebacker in his rookie year, but because of Barnes’ aforementioned physical tools, he may end up having the higher ceiling of the two young players. Or is there a chance that either of them can depose Anzalone at WILL? The chances of that happening may be slim, especially early in the season, but if Barnes can prove himself as a viable option next to Campbell, then the Lions could have a trio of young linebackers to move forward with in Campbell, Barnes, and Rodriguez.

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