The Detroit Lions have spent a lot of time hyping up third-year linebacker Derrick Barnes. After a couple years of adjusting to the relatively new position—he played the edge rusher position for most of college—Barnes has made an impression on everyone around him about how big of a mental jump he’s made in 2023.
“That is a player that I have seen walk in this building since we started Phase 2 and looked like a completely different player,” linebackers coach Kelvin Sheppard said in the spring. “I mean, a kid growing into a man, taking charge, holding people accountable, running the huddle, letting everybody know, ‘I know what I’m doing. Now let me help you out.’”
Barnes carried that over into the summer and started training camp with the starters alongside Alex Anzalone. Everything seems primed for Barnes, who only started four games last season, to take over a bigger role and potentially even be a starter.
There’s only one problem: a first-round draft pick is now standing in his way. The Lions used the 18th overall pick in the 2023 NFL Draft on Jack Campbell—a player they are hoping becomes a long-term anchor of this defense. And on Wednesday, we saw the first signs of Campbell taking some of those starting reps away from Barnes.
On Wednesday, Barnes admitted his fight for a starting spot was something he was constantly thinking about—even as early as Monday this week. However, his approach and the way he’s thinking about things in camp is evolving.
“A couple days ago, I had to sit back and think to myself, ‘That’s not the worry right now.’ The worry is not if I’m going to start, if I’m going to play. The worry is getting better and continuing to help myself grow and find happiness and comfort in myself,” Barnes said. “Competing, doing the best I can to let everything come by itself. I try so hard not to focus on (starting) because when I do, I can tell the difference in my game. It takes away a little bit of my happiness when I do that because I’m focusing on the wrong thing.”
Barnes came to that realization earlier in the week after a particularly tough day of camp and confiding in a friend.
“Yesterday was a stressful day for me, just kind of got in my way, and it was because I was worried about whether I’m a starter, whether I’m going to play, this and that,” Barnes said. “I talked to a great man, he gave me some advice, so I’ve just been working on that and trying to keep a smile on myself no matter what happens. I know he told me one thing, not to please man but to please God. So that’s what I’m doing right now. Obviously you want to please coaches and all that, but to find your inner self, you have to show the abilities and gifts that God gave you.”
By all accounts, Barnes has succeeded in making himself a better, more-informed linebacker.
“I feel like mentally,” Anzalone said, “I’ve never seen ... that big of a mental transition from a college to a pro level. He’s put in the work to really study the game and grow from an on-the-ball defender to a middle linebacker in the NFL.”
Regardless of whether Barnes is starting at the WILL position or if Campbell wins the MIKE job and pushes Anzalone to the starting WILL spot, there will almost certainly be a role for Barnes in this defense. Last year, the Lions regularly utilized their depth situationally, with four different linebackers tallying at least 150 snaps last season. Even if Barnes’ role isn’t significant, trustworthy depth well be essential if injuries hit the position, and the Lions believe this linebacker room is the strongest they’ve had in years.
“There’s five or six guys who can legitimately start in the NFL, and have started in the NFL,” Anzalone said.