For much of the offseason, we’ve heard Detroit Lions coaches and front office members talk about the importance of the 2021 draft class. If this team is going to make some noise this year and in the future, those seven picks will have to take a big jump this year—the mystical Year 2 jump.
“I mean we’re counting on it, we’ve got to have it,” coach Dan Campbell said at the start of training camp. “I mean, if t hey don’t make a jump, we’re in trouble. That’s the bottom line because those guys are kind of our core and our foundation.”
For some draft picks, that jump in play may have already started. We saw Amon-Ra St. Brown take a huge step in the last leg of his rookie season. Penei Sewell was playing like a top-five right tackle in December.
But there were plenty of players who went through some typical rookie struggles last year. Their Year 2 jump, the Lions hope, is coming. Now into the heart of training camp, Campbell pointed to two players he believes are in the midst of that Year 2 jump right now: fourth-round linebacker Derrick Barnes and seventh-round running back Jermar Jefferson.
“Two guys from last year that I think really had made some – to this point, made some of the biggest progress to this point is Barnes and Jefferson,” Campbell said on Wednesday. “Both of those guys just attitude-wise and their demeanor, and the way they – just all the little stuff. It never had anything to do with the way they worked. I mean, they just didn’t know what they didn’t know, and they were young, and a little bit of deer in the headlights.
“And this year, both of those guys have really come out with a different attitude, or a different demeanor, more confidence, and it’s good to see. Barnes, I love where Barnes is at because I can feel Barnes on special teams right now, and I see his growth as a linebacker. He’s very much in play in there. So, he’s right where he needs to be, he’s growing.”
Barnes cracked the starting lineup last year, but he shared time with Jalen Reeves-Maybin for most of the year due to inconsistent play. This year, the linebacking corps remains as unsettled as ever. Barnes won’t be given a job, but he’ll have the opportunity to compete for a starting role with the likes of Alex Anzalone, Chris Board, Shaun Dion Hamilton and rookie Malcolm Rodriguez, among others.
General manager Brad Holmes, too, has seen the improvement this year in Barnes.
“That (jump) has been extraordinary,” Holmes told SiriusXM’s Jim MIller and Pat Kirwan on Wednesday. “He just knows what’s going on now. Last year as a rookie, he had one year under his belt playing at inside linebacker position. Now he knows what he’s doing, he’s much better in communication.”
As for Jefferson, he’s in a roster battle of his own. Last year, he spent much of the year sidelined, and with the Lions bringing back everybody from last year’s corps, there’s a chance Jefferson doesn’t make the initial 53-man roster. He’s currently repping behind reserves Godwin Igwebuike and Craig Reynolds on offense, but he’s made significant strides on special teams, which could make him a tough cut later this month.
“Jermar has taken a nice jump from year one to year two, which he really needed to make because obviously last year he really wasn’t good enough,” special teams coordinator Dave Fipp said. “He has taken a very sizable jump. I’ve told him that I’ve noticed he has done a great job. Now it’s just going to come down to how he plays in these preseason games. Based off how he is practicing I feel really good about him.”
Jefferson also made one of the biggest plays on offense this training camp. He took a screen and broke three tackles on the way to a 50+ yard touchdown.
For both Barnes and Jefferson, there’s a long ways to go to find the roles they’re looking for, but first impressions are important, and both have come into Year 2 looking noticeably better.