He’s not this year’s first-round pick or last year’s star of “Hard Knocks,” and that’s why it was a surprise to see Derrick Barnes taking first-team reps at linebacker when the Detroit Lions opened organized team activities last week.
Barnes, a fourth-round pick out of Purdue in 2021, has been the most overlooked member of the Lions’ suddenly competitive linebacking corps this spring.
The Lions spent a first-round pick — No. 18 overall — on Jack Campbell, re-signed leading tackler Alex Anzalone in free agency and return 2022 sixth-round pick Malcolm Rodriguez after he started 15 games as a rookie last year.
Anzalone is a virtual lock to start at one off-ball linebacker spot this fall, and the smart money is on Campbell to eventually win the other job. But Barnes is operating with a new sense of urgency entering what stands to reason is the biggest season of his young career.
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“There’s always urgency,” Barnes said after the Lions’ fifth OTA practice of the spring Thursday. “I would never let anything like (the Lions using a high draft pick on a linebacker) knock me off my game. I know what I’m about and I believe in the plans that they have, and no matter draft or first round, Jack is an amazing player and I understand why they brought him here, but it’s not going to ever bring me down.”
Barnes has been a steady role player throughout his two seasons in Detroit.
He made six starts as a rookie in 2021 and finished the season with a career-high 67 tackles. A bit player early in the year, he flourished late, playing 40 or more snaps in four of the Lions’ final five games and recording two sacks.
But Rodriguez won the starting job next to Anzalone last season, relegating Barnes once again to spot duty most of the year. He started four games, made 47 tackles and had one sack.
The Lions considered it necessary to re-sign Anzalone, the nerve center of their defense, as they retooled the unit this offseason, and when they fell in love with the hulking Campbell and his potential three-down ability in the draft process, Barnes and Rodriguez appeared to be the odd men out in their linebacker rotation.
Lions defensive coordinator Aaron Glenn acknowledged last week that Campbell “will have a chance to compete to start” this fall.
“We drafted him for a reason,” Glenn said.
But Barnes has been running with the ones for now — Rodriguez was working behind Barnes in the linebacker rotation when he left with what Lions coach Dan Campbell called a minor injury May 25 — and has no intention of ceding his spot.
“I’m going to stay focused and do what I know I can do and just keep progressing and keep getting better and for myself, especially, and for my teammates,” Barnes said. “Like I said, I know what I’m about and whatever happens, happens, but I’m going to continue to work and do what I love.”
In many ways, Barnes is still only scratching the surface of his potential.
At Purdue, Barnes played both as an inside linebacker and defensive end, which gave him the versatility the Lions like in their linebackers — but also left him raw as a prospect.
A full-time off-ball linebacker in Detroit, Barnes said he’s finally at a point in his career where things are beginning to click.
“I came into college and I wasn’t at the mental aspect I wanted to be at, and that’s just where I come from,” Barnes said. “No excuses or anything, I studied my behind off and I knew it would take me time to get to where I wanted to be and I just told myself to keep progressing, head down, keep working. No matter what obstacles are being thrown at you, just come out here and work and prove to not only other people but yourself what you can do because I know what my ability is and I know what I can do.
“So the main thing for me has just been, don’t let the mental aspect hold you back from where you want to be and that’s what I’ve been doing.”
For two years, Barnes has stayed in Anzalone’s hip pocket trying to learn the nuances of the Lions defense. He said he’s “studying even more than I ever have” and using this spring to prove “what I can do and what I’m able to do and what I’m about as a player.”
Whether that’s enough to carve out a bigger role on defense won’t be known till fall, but in the meantime, Barnes said he’s pleased with his development and determined to keep progressing on the field.
“It just takes players some time to develop, and that’s some players can catch on to it in their first year, some players it takes them a couple years,” Barnes said. “It took me a couple years, but I’m going to continue to do that. Continue to get better, continue to learn and learn from Alex, learn from older guys and learn from my coaches. It’s been amazing being around those guys and them creating me into the man I am now.”