Lions' Derrick Barnes hitting groove in second camp, pushing for starting linebacker job

Justin Rogers
The Detroit News

Allen Park — It never ceases to amaze how quickly what was exciting, shiny and new a year ago is cast aside for the next big thing in the NFL. And although there's no way the team would characterize it in such terms, in many ways it's exactly what has happened to Detroit Lions linebacker Derrick Barnes.

Arriving as a fourth-round pick last season, with a stamp of approval from franchise legend Chris Spielman, Barnes played 448 snaps as a rookie in 2021. It was far from a stellar debut campaign for Barnes, who battled understandable struggles transitioning from playing along the defensive line at Purdue to lining up off the ball for the Lions, but there was lingering optimism he was primed for the developmental jump between his first and second year that is commonly experience. 

Lions linebacker Derrick Barnes played 448 snaps as a rookie last season.

Then Malcolm Rodriguez arrived in town. 

Rodriguez came to the Lions with minimal fanfare — a sixth-round pick out of Oklahoma State who was highly productive, but unquestionably undersized. But he's surged to the top of the depth chart and to the forefront of fan interest, in part fueled by how much he's been featured on HBO's documentary series, "Hard Knocks." 

But as outside expectations have seemingly dimmed for Barnes, things are starting to click as he finishes his second training camp. Beginning with the team's joint practice with the Indianapolis Colts last week, into the second preseason game, Barnes has been making more and more plays, particularly in the run game.

That improvement isn't an illusion, according to position coach Kelvin Sheppard. 

“Derrick Barnes is coming, and that’s a real thing," Sheppard said. "That player is a very explosive, very violent, very strong linebacker. For Derrick, it’s always been above the neck area. It’s nothing below the neck. He has everything you’re looking for from the linebacker spot below the neck. It’s above the neck, and that comes with time on task with him.

"...When things are moving, you gotta know what you’re keying, what you’re diagnosing and within a matter of 2-3 seconds, be able to react and go make plays," Sheppard said. "And that takes time on task, and my job as his coach is to put him in as many situations as I can possibly do to prepare him for that. But that player is a player that I am very pleased with right now. He came into this year raw, and I mean raw. Ball goes right, he goes left. Because, D. Barnes, he is explosive and fast, and he’s just trying to run and go make a play versus reading, keying, and diagnosing, and that’s something he’s done better at."

As a rookie, Barnes said he focused on learning only his position's responsibilities, but as he's gained familiarity with both his role and the scheme, he's been able to expand his understanding of the entire defense, which he believes is helping him play faster. 

"It just helps put you in the right position on plays," Barnes said. "It helps, for instance, (against) the run, just knowing who you have outside of you or inside of you. Those are big, key factors.

"...I see things differently," Barnes said. "I know this is a football term, but seeing from three to two, things like that, crossing routes and know where to be. The game has definitely slowed down for me this year. That's big thanks to Coach Shep, because I've set up in his office and he went through a few offenses to kinda help me develop that. (He) helped me develop being in that mental linebacker that knows the game and knows what to do."

Heading into Sunday's preseason finale, Sheppard isn't writing off Barnes in battle to win a starting job, which has recently been projected as Rodriguez's to lose. 

"Derrick Barnes is for sure in the mix with getting rep with the ones and being a guy that’s still competing to start," Sheppard said.

Twitter: @Justin_Rogers