Allen Park — When discussing ways he could address his team’s struggling offense in the immediate aftermath of last month’s 44-6 loss to the Philadelphia Eagles, the first name Detroit Lions coach Dan Campbell mentioned was rookie wide receiver Amon-Ra St. Brown.
“I think we need to look long and hard at St. Brown,” Campbell said. “There, for example, are there things that we can use him, that we can do that really will help him help us? Maybe that’s the best way to put it. We have to start looking at some of these guys.”
St. Brown was a rare bright spot in that otherwise disastrous outing, catching three passes for 46 yards. He also had another 34-yard gain wiped out by an illegal formation penalty. Still, the best word to describe the rookie’s usage this season has been inconsistent.
Through the first three games, St. Brown caught six balls for a meager 43 yards. He surged the following two weeks, with 13 receptions on 16 targets for a combined 135 yards, before not getting a single look in the team’s loss to the Los Angeles Rams, the week before the matchup against the Eagles.
Brown has primarily served as Detroit’s slot receiver during his inaugural season, lining up there 82.8% of the time, but as Campbell and the coaching staff explores more ways to get him involved, one option being discussed is playing him more frequently outside, in the ‘Z’ alignment, to the strong side of the formation.
“I’m very excited for the opportunity to go make plays,” St. Brown said this week. “I know I’m ready and like I said, I’m excited.”
Another rookie who has seen steady playing time this season is linebacker Derrick Barnes. Since the team released veteran Jamie Collins, Barnes has split the workload with veteran Jalen Reeves-Maybin, seeing between 30-50% of the defensive snaps on a weekly basis.
“Derrick is, I think, getting better every week,” Lions inside linebacker coach Mark DeLeone said. “He’s a guy who is a young player who played really a different position in college. Played linebacker his senior year, but also played defensive end earlier, played some defensive end last year, too. So there’s a lot of things that are some nuances to the position that I think he’s growing and getting better every week. I really like where he is right here. I think his trajectory is right where he needs to be halfway through his rookie year.”
DeLeone said the second-half evaluation of Barnes will be ongoing, but will have less to with stats than the first year player’s understanding of his assignments on a down-to-down basis.
“There’s small things that happen within a play that doesn’t involve getting a tackle,” DeLeone said. “It’s just understanding, ‘OK, I saw this and this is how I reacted’ that comes with playing the linebacker position. Time and work and reps. And when you see him start to do those things, that’s where you see the growth.
The timeshare with Reeves-Maybin is going to continue, with the playing time largely being dictated by what opposing offenses are showing, both with their personnel and play-calling. But both players are being cross trained for a full-time role if an injury should dictate it.
As for Barnes’ long-term outlook, DeLeone sees some similarities to a former player he coached in Chicago.
“I’m biased because I really like him; I had a lot of success in Chicago with Nick Kwiatkoski who went onto Oakland and made some money,” DeLeone said. “I think that’s a guy who Derrick has a very similar body, very similar skillset to Nick. And I think Nick ended up being a really good backer for us in Chicago and his first year in Oakland. So I think that’s a guy who he’s similar to.”
In his final season with Chicago in 2019, Kwiatkoski appeared in all 16 games for the Bears, starting eight and recording 76 tackles (8.0 for a loss), 3.0 sacks, four pass breakups, an interception and a forced fumble.
He signed a three-year, $21 million contract with the Raiders ahead of the 2020 season, starting 12 games for them that season, while recording a career-high 81 tackles, along with another four pass breakups, an interception and forced fumble.
The Lions hosted Detroit Pistons Hall of Famer Ben Wallace at the team’s facility on Tuesday.
“He was outstanding, man,” Campbell said. “What a stud. He was great. I’ll tell you what was cool, before we even got out there as a team, just talking to him — just little things about growing up, how he grew up, where he was from — you are always intrigued, especially someone like him, an undrafted free agent makes the Hall of Fame.
“… To be the player he was on the boards and playing defense, everything, it really embodies everything I think this city is about,” Campbell said. “But also that’s kind of what we want to be, right? That’s what you want to mold your persona after is a guy like him.”
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