When it comes to the Detroit Lions’ overall 2021 rookie class, it’s hard to complain too much. The first-round pick of Penei Sewell has already paid dividends, as the offensive tackle proved no matter what side he plays on, he can play at a high level. Additionally, the Lions got an absolute steal with Amon-Ra St. Brown in the fourth round, and even Alim McNeill got some post-season praise by landing on PFF’s All-Rookie team.
General manager Brad Holmes even had to pat himself—and his staff—on the back a little after his first NFL Draft with the Lions.
“Credit to staff, again, like I said about the young guys getting valuable snaps,” Holmes said on Tuesday. “I think all seven draftees played critical roles, played valuable roles. Six of the seven were starters at some point in this season, even down to a seventh-round pick in Jermar Jefferson, he was able to contribute.”
But that isn’t to say Holmes’ first draft was perfect. There were some bumps along the way, specifically with second-round pick Levi Onwuzurike and fourth-round pick Derrick Barnes. Per PFF, Barnes was the team’s worst defender in 2021, while Onwuzurike finished with the fifth-lowest grade on the team.
Holmes provided a little insight into why the two may not have reached expectations in their rookie seasons.
With Onwuzurike—who, it’s important to note, chose to opt-out of his 2020 college season— Holmes said that they were originally thinking about sitting him for his entire rookie season due to a back injury they discovered during training camp.
“We were at the point now—Dan (Campbell) and I thought he was going to be almost a redshirt,” Holmes admitted.
Onwuzurike would end up missing most of training camp, and he was also sidelined in Week 1 with a hip injury. He would only play 10-20 snaps for the next five weeks before finally seeing his role increase around the midway point in the season. And while his level of play left much to be desired, Holmes remains optimistic about the defensive tackle.
“He’s got a lot of stuff that he’s got to work on and he’s aware of it. We were having a discussion about that the other day,” Holmes said. “He’s a very smart guy who’s very physically gifted and he’s self-aware about what he needs to work on headed into this offseason. It’s a big year.”
As for Barnes, Holmes was quick to remind the media that he’s still very new to the off-ball linebacker position.
“Look, he was playing linebacker his first year, last year at Purdue,” Holmes said. “He was learning how to play linebacker last year. So, then he makes the jump to the NFL and he’s still learning how to play linebacker.”
Barnes’ rookie season ran very hot and cold. During the preseason, he showed flashes of the guy Detroit’s front office loved. But he started the season buried pretty deep on the depth chart. With veterans Jamie Collins and Alex Anzalone leading the charge, Barnes saw just five defensive snaps in the first two games. After the Lions decided to move on from Collins, Barnes was pushed into the starting lineup. However, after some mistakes, Detroit opted to give the majority of playing time to the seasoned Jalen Reeves-Maybin and Barnes was coming off the bench.
But an injury to Anzalone afforded Barnes the opportunity to get some valuable playing time in the final months of the season, and that’s where Holmes saw some positive developments in his game.
“The growth that he’s made from the start of the season till just this past game has been tremendous with (inside linebackers Coach) Mark (DeLeone) doing a great job with him,” Holmes said. “Chris (Spielman) has been doing a great job with him. I’m encouraged by the growth that he’s shown.”
As the roster currently stands, both Onwuzurike and Barnes are lined up to have much bigger roles in 2022. At defensive tackle, Nick Williams is set to become a free agent. At linebacker, both Alex Anzalone and Jalen Reeves-Maybin may not be back next year. If Onwuzurike and Barnes can take advantage of those potential opportunities and take big Year 2 jumps, Holmes’ first rookie class could end up being the best we’ve seen in Detroit in a long time.