Last year—and even going into this year—Detroit Lions linebacker Derrick Barnes was lost. Having spent just a single year as an off-ball linebacker in college, the mental challenge of playing that position at an NFL level was proving to be too much.
“He came into this year raw, and I mean raw,” linebackers coach Kelvin Sheppard said, bluntly adding, “Ball goes right, he goes left.”
But Barnes has shown some serious improvement from his rookie season. There were plenty of mistakes along the way in his six starts, and he took those as learning opportunities. Now he’s seeing the game in an entirely different way.
“The game has just definitely slowed down for me this year,” Barnes said on Thursday. “That’s a big thing for coach Shep (Sheppard) because I’ve set up in his office and he went through a few offenses to help me develop that. Help me develop that ‘mental linebacker’ that knows the game and knows what to do.”
Things certainly looked like they clicked with Barnes in last week’s joint practices and preseason game against the Indianapolis Colts. The second-year linebacker was attacking gaps and cleaning up plays behind the line of scrimmage. In that preseason game, Barnes tallied four tackles in just 16 defensive snaps and 12 on special teams, earning a 77.2 overall grade from PFF.
“It was honestly one of the best weeks for me—during camp-wise—going against an opposing team and not just your guys,” Barnes continued.
Barnes isn’t the only one noticing an improvement in his game. Sheppard sent a warning to the Lions media room on Thursday.
“Derrick Barnes is coming, and that’s a real thing,” Sheppard said. “That player is a very explosive, very violent, very strong linebacker.”
Barnes has been sharing first-team reps with rookie sensation Malcolm Rodriguez for the past couple weeks of training camp. In a lot of ways, Rodriguez is the exact opposite of Barnes. While Barnes has all the physical traits the Lions are looking for in a linebacker but is still learning the game, Rodriguez has come in with an immediate understanding of the position, but is physically limited, both in his frame and arm length (over three inches shorter than Barnes). That being said, Rodriguez has shown more flash in camp and has overcome all of the major concerns people had about him as an NFL prospect.
“He’s knocked down every question I’ve ever had about him,” Sheppard said of Rodriguez.
But both Sheppard and defensive coordinator Aaron Glenn have preached patience with Rodriguez so far. Sure, Rodriguez has had an excellent camp and he’s the early star of “Hard Knocks,” but having played zero regular-season snaps thus far, coaches don’t want to put too much pressure on the 23-year-old linebacker before his career even begins.
“He deserves (the recognition) in a way, but at the same time, I just want to put that out there because I know that narrative is out there right now and that’s a lot to put on the kid,” Sheppard said. “I would like us to tone it down and kinda see where we’re at Week 4, 5, 6, after these guys have strapped it up against Philly, Washington, Minnesota, so on and so forth. I hope for my sake and the Lions’ sake we’re singing the same type of praises.”
That could open up a door for Barnes to get some early play this season, and with the way things are looking, he could be an integral part of this defense.
“Derrick Barnes is for sure in the mix with getting reps with the ones and being a guy that’s still competing to start,” Sheppard said.
Veteran Alex Anzalone is almost certainly going to occupy one of the starting spots to start the year, as Sheppard noted that he’s met his challenge to be more physical this year. So Barnes and Rodriguez will battle for the starting job alongside him. However, with Anzalone on just a one-year deal, the Lions may have their two starting linebackers of the future, assuming they can turn preseason promise into regular season production.