Lions LBs coach optimistic there will be more in store for Derrick Barnes in Year 2

Detroit News

Allen Park — With every spot in the Detroit Lions’ linebacker group up for grabs heading into training camp, there’s plenty to be excited about when it comes to Derrick Barnes. Just ask linebackers coach Kelvin Sheppard.

Barnes, who was selected in the fourth round out of Purdue in last year’s draft, has impressed in OTAs and minicamp and looks to be a notable player to watch heading into training camp.

“I’m even more excited about that player right now, with having my hands on him for about two months now,” Sheppard said at the close of minicamp earlier this month. “He’s done everything and more that I’ve asked. He’s completely bought in.”

The Lions have a plethora of young players looking to take a step next season, and the expected jump from Year 1 to Year 2 in the NFL was a hot topic all spring in Allen Park. After Barnes, 23, played about 25% of snaps and started games sporadically during his rookie year, the expectations have certainly raised a bit for him heading into his second season.

Part of that has to do with what he showed, in flashes, during 2021. He made 67 tackles (tied for fifth on team) with four tackles for loss and two sacks (tied for fourth in both categories). The other part of the equation is the linebackers’ new style of play, which is predicated on the defensive line — the switch to a more “attacking front” that so many have talked about over the offseason.

“With the changes made to the front end — you kind of alluded to with the attack style, more aggressive — everybody has to fall in line but especially the group that I have to coach, the linebackers, because we work hand in hand in the run game,” Sheppard said. “Your front does something, and we essentially are gonna read and react off those guys, but it has to be at a tempo that’s aligned with the way the D-line is playing.”

Reading and reacting in the NFL, where offenses are much more complex than in college and the speed is second to none, typically takes some getting used to. That’s something that veteran linebacker Alex Anzalone knows firsthand, and has seen as an area of growth in Barnes’ game.

“I think, one, he knows exactly what to do now. I think at this point, just getting the intricate details down of the (defensive) scheme, and it takes time to develop as a guy in the NFL,” Anzalone said. “I know he started on the ball in college and it takes time. I think OTAs is definitely a place where you can accelerate his development. So, I think that’s just his next step.”

Sheppard said that while many in the building have described Barnes as a “new guy” this offseason, he doesn’t see it that way. Rather, Barnes is becoming “the guy that I always thought was there.” Now, it’s Sheppard’s job to make sure he maintains that pace.

“It starts with the coach believing in a player and (being) able to pull out the most in a player. If you go into that with high optimism and high thoughts and praise on the player, the player feels that,” Sheppard said. “And that guy, man, the sky’s the limit for him, but he knows as well he hasn’t had a lot of off-ball experience. So that’s just for me, getting a molded clay and I could make him whatever I wanted. But at the same time, he has to go do it.”

Barnes is still in the infancy of his development as a player in the NFL. And at 6-feet and 238 pounds, Sheppard is enthusiastic about the idea of Barnes’ mind starting to match his physique.

“When Derrick knows what to do — you’ll see it this fall,” Sheppard said. “That player there, there’s not many in the league with that stature, with his power, with the way he can run and hit and can do what he can do, once he knows exactly what to do.”

Nolan Bianchi is a freelance writer.

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