Lions’ Brad Holmes still high on Levi Onwuzurike, Derrick Barnes after rookie struggles

Detroit News

Allen Park — In the NFL, most teams’ rookie classes have hits and misses. For the Detroit Lions, first-year general manager Brad Holmes had more of the former than latter, including a pair of home runs into the upper deck.

First-round selection Penei Sewell lived up to and exceeded the hype that led to him being the first offensive lineman selected in last year’s draft, starting 16 games between right and left tackle and playing well beyond his age as one of the two youngest players in the class, along with Falcons tight end Kyle Pitts.

And fourth-rounder Amon-Ra St. Brown’s accomplishments have been well-documented down the stretch the season. The former USC standout set franchise records for most receptions and receiving yards for a first-year player and became the only rookie in NFL history to catch at least eight passes in six consecutive games.

“I said it to you guys earlier after we drafted him, he reminded me of some of the guys that we had when I was back in L.A., and I believed that he showed that in his own way,” Holmes said. “He’s a culture fit for what we’re all about.

“I think everything just kind of clicked for him kind of late,” Holmes said. “But we always knew he had the intangibles and work ethic and he’s just a pro’s pro in the way that he’s wired. That equated to a lot of his success on top of his physical ability.”

But it wasn’t all sunshine and rainbows for Detroit’s draft class. Defensive lineman Levi Onwuzurike and linebacker Derrick Barnes combined to play more than 800 snaps, but didn’t have anywhere near the positive results of Sewell or St. Brown.

Still, Holmes remains high on both defenders and praised the late-season development, while acknowledging he figured it might take a little longer for each to round into form.

Holmes had coveted Onwuzurike in the draft, admitting after the selection he had pondered trading back into the first round to ensure the Lions landed the former University of Washington standout.

But early optimism was quelled by some offseason injury concerns, including a back issue that sidelined him much of training camp. That, combined with the fact he had accumulated rust after opting out his final collegiate season, had Holmes wondering how much could reasonably be expected during the lineman’s rookie campaign.

“(Coach) Dan (Campbell) and I thought he was going to be almost a redshirt (player),” Holmes said, a reference to college athletes who rarely play during the early stages of their development. “So how well he performed down the stretch was, well, it wasn’t always good. He’s got a lot of stuff that he’s got to work on and he’s aware of it. We were having a discussion about that the other day.

“He’s a very smart guy who’s very physically gifted and he’s self-aware about what he needs to work on headed into this offseason,” Holmes continued. “It’s a big year.”

As for Barnes, Detroit’s general manager felt the slower-paced development was more mental than physical.

“He was learning how to play linebacker last year,” Holmes said. “Then he makes the jump to the NFL and he’s still learning how to play linebacker. Now I will say, the growth that he’s made from the start of the season until just this past game has been tremendous. … I’m encouraged by the growth that he’s shown.”

Holmes specifically cited the touchdown Barnes surrendered in coverage during the team’s season finale against the Packers as an example of his improvement, On the play, Barnes picked up wide receiver Allen Lazard running across Detroit’s formation, but Green Bay still got over top for a long score.

“About four or five weeks ago he would have not even probably have recognized that coming, but he did,” Holmes said.  “So just little nuances like that where you saw the growth and development in his game, I think the future is bright for him as well.”

In total, all seven of Detroit’s draft picks saw playing time on offense or defense this season, with six starting at least one game. The team also got key contributions from undrafted rookies Jerry Jacobs, AJ Parker and Brock Wright during the year.

jdrogers@detroitnews.com

Twitter: @Justin_Rogers

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