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2023 Detroit Lions roster preview: Derrick Barnes is starting to put it together

After a strong finish in 2022, Detroit Lions’ LB Derrick Barnes is making serious progress so far in 2023. What will his role be in the Lions’ LB room?

Green Bay Packers vs Detroit Lions Photo by Jorge Lemus/NurPhoto via Getty Images

Originally drafted 114th overall by the Detroit Lions in the 2021 NFL draft, linebacker Derrick Barnes was the sixth player selected by Lions’ general manager Brad Holmes in his inaugural draft class as Detroit’s chief decision maker.

Barnes began his collegiate career at Purdue as a running back, and when you watch his movement on the field, you understand why he was recruited to tote the rock as a runner at 6-foot and 238 pounds, Barnes is an elite athlete at the linebacker position. He has a powerfully-built frame, good lateral agility, and some serious downhill speed.

Now headed into his third year in Detroit, Barnes is turning heads because of his development as an off-ball linebacker. Where does he fit in the Lions’ new-look linebacker room?

Let’s take a closer look in the next iteration of our 2023 roster preview series.

Previous roster previews: Aidan Hutchinson, Jameson Williams, Josh Paschal, Kerby Joseph, James Mitchell, Malcolm Rodriguez, James Houston, Chase Lucas, Obinna Eze, Greg Bell, Penei Sewell, Levi Onwuzurike, Alim McNeill, Ifeatu Melifonwu, and Amon-Ra St. Brown.

Derrick Barnes

Expectations heading into 2022

After a 2021 season in which the vast majority of the rookie class made an impact, there was reason to believe Barnes would take a significant step in his development in 2022. As mentioned above, Barnes has not been playing off-ball linebacker very long. Furthermore, linebacker is one of those positions where it takes live reps to really get the feel of what is going on around you. Like Barnes, a player can have all of the physical tools in the world, but if they don’t know how to key and process quickly—then it usually doesn’t matter.

Barnes, along with veteran linebacker Alex Anzalone, free agent acquisition Chris Board, and 2021 sixth-round pick Malcolm Rodriguez—would go on to form the Lions’ off-ball linebacker group.

Actual role in 2022

13 games (4 starts): 346 defensive snaps, 161 special teams snaps
Stats: 47 total tackles, one sack, one pass breakup, five QB hurries
PFF defensive grade: 62.3 (50th of 80 LBs that logged at least 300 snaps)
PFF run defense grade: 76.8 (23rd of 80 LBs)
PFF tackling grade: 56.0 (56th of 80 LBs)
PFF pass rush grade: 60.2 (66th of 80 LBs)
PFF coverage grade: 46.8 (71st of 80 LBs)
PFF special teams grade: 69.1

If you watched the 2022 edition of HBO’s “Hard Knocks”, then you understand how the story of the linebacker position played out—at least during the first half of the season. Rookie linebacker Malcolm Rodriguez took the series by storm, generating a lot of buzz with his overall feel for the position. And because of his strong play early in training camp and through the preseason, Rodriguez was able to lock down a starting spot at the WILL linebacker position alongside Anzalone at the MIKE—leaving Barnes as the first linebacker off the bench.

Like the rest of the Lions’ defense early in 2022, Barnes had his issues when he was on the field. Inconsistent play along the defensive line put extra pressure on Detroit’s linebackers, who were having problems of their own with down-to-down stability.

Then, after schematic changes were made after the Lions’ Week 8 loss to the Miami Dolphins at home, Barnes began to see an increase in his snaps. Defensive coordinator Aaron Glenn started to employ him in specific ways, including as a blitzer—both against the run and the pass.

Those physical skills I mentioned at the beginning of this article? They began to flash more frequently as Barnes started to figure things out.

I can almost guarantee you that linebacker coach Kelvin Sheppard got really excited when this play popped up during film-study. Barnes wastes no time, gets downhill, and makes the play on Jacksonville Jaguars’ running back Travis Etienne. This is exactly what Sheppard and the rest of the defensive coaching staff want from their linebackers—don’t waste time, get downhill, make the play that is in front of you.

Outlook for 2023

The Lions’ linebacker position would have been a group to keep an eye on even if the Lions were returning Barnes, Rodriguez, and Anzalone. Now that we have to factor in the Lions’ second first-round draft pick from the 2022 NFL draft, University of Iowa linebacker Jack Campbell, it may be the position to watch in training camp.

Barnes finished the 2022 season on a high note, and has impressed coaches with his progress made this summer—particularly when it comes to the mental aspect of his game.

“So, the main thing for me is just don’t let the mental aspect hold you back from where you want to be,” Barnes said of his development since entering the league. “And, that’s what I’ve been doing, studying even more than I ever have. You know, asking questions, and all the things I’ve done in previous years. But just taking it to the next level, and just coming out here and showing everyone what I can do and what I’m able to do and what I’m about as a player.”

If it weren’t for the addition of Campbell to the mix, we would likely be discussing the WILL linebacker battle as a two-man competition between Rodriguez and Barnes. However, one would think that the Lions didn’t draft Campbell at 18 overall to have him anywhere but the MIKE—at least in the long term. And with Anzalone likely being the starter at the WILL and the wearer of the green dot, that leaves things wide open for the third linebacker.

Who will be the third linebacker when the Lions opt to go with heavier personnel? Rodriguez proved he was a capable NFL linebacker in his rookie year, but because of Barnes’ aforementioned physical tools, he may end up having the higher ceiling between the two young players. Or is there a chance either of them can unseat Anzalone at the WILL? The odds of that happening may be slim, especially at the beginning of the season, but if Barnes can prove himself as a viable option next to Campbell, then the Lions could have a trio of young linebackers to move forward with in Campbell, Barnes, and Rodriguez.

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