The Detroit Lions linebacker group is easily the most unsettled position group on the roster and has seen nearly a complete turnover of players over the past two offseasons—with Anthony Pittman the lone carryover from the previous regime.
Currently, the Lions return just one starter (Alex Anzalone), drafted a high upside developmental player on Day 3 in each of the past two NFL Drafts (Derrick Barnes in 2021 and Malcolm Rodriguez in 2022), and signed veteran free agents looking for an opportunity to start (Chris Board and Jarrad Davis), but none of them are guaranteed a role on defense. In fact, things are so unsettled that the veterans could end up with starting spot or be completely off the roster altogether by the end of training camp.
There is more security for Barnes and Rodriguez, as the team has invested draft capital into them, but can either earn a starting job? Heading into training camp, Barnes may be the closest of the pair to securing that role but he has some work to do.
Let’s take a closer look at Barnes, in the latest installment of our roster preview series.
Expectations heading into 2021
In 2021, the Lions' new coaching staff relied on five main off-the-ball linebackers. They inherited a trio of Jamie Collins, Jalen Reeves-Maybin, and Pittman, signed Anzalone in free agency, and traded up 40 spots into the fourth round to draft Barnes. While the trade-up drew praise from fans, media, and even other NFL teams, it was clear Barnes was still early in the developmental stages of his career as an off-the-ball linebacker.
Barnes began his career at Purdue as a 3-4 outside linebacker, where he started as a sophomore and junior, but at 6-foot-0 1⁄2 and 238 pounds, his path to the NFL as a pure pass rusher would likely be difficult. He made the switch inside to an off-the-ball role as a senior, a move that helped highlight Barnes’ natural instincts, including featuring his speed, above-average athleticism, instincts, and tenacity.
With just one year at the position, most expected Barnes would need some seasoning before being able to contribute on defense consistently. Although, with his unique traits, he was expected to immediately hold down a starting role on special teams.
Actual role in 2021
2021 stats: 16 games (6 starts): 67 tackles, 4 tackles for loss, 2 sacks, 2 QB hits, 2 passes defended
PFF grade: 30.1 (93rd out of 95 linebackers who played at least 20% of defensive snaps)
PFF grade on special teams: 70.0 (10th out of 72 players on the Lions last season)
Through the first two weeks of the season, Barnes played mostly on special teams, but with Jamie Collins struggling in a starting role, coach Dan Campbell and defensive coordinator Aaron Glenn decided that “Barnes deserves a shot” and started him in three of the next four games. During those three weeks, Collins was phased out and eventually released, while Barnes and Reeves-Maybin competed for snaps.
As was expected, Barnes flashed some real talent, but his rawness for the position showed through, and by Week 7, coaches made the move to scale back his role in favor of Reeves-Maybin. Barnes would start three more games during the season as an injury replacement for Reeves-Maybin or Anzalone, while also seeing his snaps slowly increase as the season wore on.
What coaches figured out through the 2021 season was that Barnes was a hands-on learner and needed experience in order to improve.
“I think with Derrick, there’s things that he learns from that he doesn’t have to make a mistake to learn from, but then there’s enough of these where, honestly, he’s got to stick his hand in the fire before he realizes that it is hot,” Campbell said ahead of the season finale. “You can’t just tell him. He’s got to figure it out himself.”
Over the final five weeks of the season, Barnes played on at least 40 defensive snaps (at least 54 percent) in four of those games, including 54 snaps (80 percent) in the final game of the season.
While the Lions are still hoping for more consistency from Barnes, they’re also encouraged by his development.
“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,” Lions’ general manager Brad Holmes said at his end of season press conference. “Chris (Spielman) has been doing a great job with him. I’m encouraged by the growth that he’s shown.”
Outlook for 2022
This offseason, the Lions moved on from DeLeone as their linebackers coach and promoted Kelvin Sheppard to the job. Sheppard—a former NFL inside linebacker—has discussed his excitement about his opportunity to mold Barnes into the player he knows he can become.
“The sky’s the limit for him, but he knows as well, (that) he hasn’t had a lot of off-ball experience,” Sheppard said of Barnes. “So that’s just for me, getting a molded clay, and I could make it into whatever I wanted. But at the same time, he has to go to do it. I told him, I can’t talk to you through the headset all play to tell you what to do. But when Derrick knows what to do, you’ll see it this fall. That player there, there’s not many in the league with that statue, with his power, with the way he can run and hit and can do what he can do, once he knows exactly what to do.”
Barnes opened up spring camp as a starter next to Anzalone, but after a few OTA practices, coaches began to incorporate free agent Chris Board into the starting mix more, and in turn, elevating competition at the position.
“It is an open competition,” Barnes said this spring. “You just have to do everything in your power to come out and compete. Come out and show what you’ve learned, come out and show that you can study, come out and show you’ve been getting in the right shape during the offseason. And we love the competition.”
Not only will Barnes have to fend off competition from other teammates, but he also has the challenge of learning how the linebacker position is evolving in the new attacking defense the Lions are incorporating this season.
“It just allows us to play free as linebackers,” Barnes continued. “It allows us to play downhill and not really think about it. Sometimes we’re not covering a wide receiver, so we don’t have to play all the way down the field, so it helps us be more aggressive against the run. And then just small details allow us to get out and look for receivers and things like that. It’s just an aggressive defense. We’re just letting the linemen go, and the receivers go, and the DBs are going to take care of what they need to take care of. I like that game a lot. I can play downhill, play aggressive, and cover when I need to. But I love this defense. It’s going to be really good.”
In addition to the new scheme suiting Barnes better, there is also a noticeable increase in his confidence entering his second year in the league. Barnes would go on to tell the media that things are translating from the film room to the field much easier this offseason and he is learning how to correct mistakes quicker.
Exiting the spring workouts, Barnes is in a solid position to fight for a starting role. He, Anzalone, and Board appeared to have separated themselves from the pack, though things are far from settled. But if Barnes can indeed make that coveted second-year jump in development, is processing things faster on the field, and playing in a scheme better suited to his skill set, as Sheppard said: “The sky’s the limit for him.”