Allen Park — Imposter syndrome exists in any profession, including professional sports. During the first two years of Detroit Lions linebacker Derrick Barnes’ career, he questioned whether he belonged in the NFL.
“Early in my career, I think I lost sight of myself and my confidence,” Barnes said. “I had to sit back and regroup, think about how far I’ve come. I’ve been doubted my whole life. I kind of felt, at one point, I didn’t deserve to be in this league, that I wasn’t good enough.”
Last year, Barnes entered his second season with lofty expectations. Instead, he lost the battle for a starting job to sixth-round rookie Malcolm Rodriguez. And Barnes’ confidence was dealt another stiff blow in the offseason, when the Lions used a first-round draft pick on his position, taking Jack Campbell at No. 18 overall.
Barnes understandably wondered where he fit in with the Lions. He texted his position coach, Kelvin Sheppard, after midnight on draft night, expressing those doubts. Sheppard didn’t sugarcoat the situation, but he assured Barnes no matter how much money a player was making or where they were drafted, Sheppard intended to run his room as a true meritocracy. He challenged Barnes to make it undeniable he deserved to play.
And that’s exactly what Barnes has done. When the Lions opened the season against the Kansas City Chiefs last week, it wasn’t Rodriguez or Campbell in the starting lineup; it was Barnes, who also logged the most snaps in the three-player rotation. In those 27 defensive snaps, he finished with a team-high six tackles and was the team’s highest-graded run defender, on a great night for Detroit’s run defense, by analytics site Pro Football Focus.
“I was excited about the player and what he showed on tape, what he did in the game, is exactly who he is,” Lions defensive coordinator Aaron Glenn said. “Everybody’s different. Every player is different, and sometimes, it takes a player a year. Sometimes, you can come off the box ready to go, and sometimes, it may take you three years. The thing is, we saw a player in Barnes, and that’s starting to show up in the games.”
What a difference a year makes.
Early last season, the Lions were dialing back Barnes’ role to rebuild his foundation. This year, he looks like a completely different player, taking the hard work he put into the offseason and transferring it to the field. And while development is anything but linear, he appears to be beyond taking one step forward, followed by three steps back, like he did in 2021 and 2022.
The fact the team stuck with him through his ups and downs — not only continuing to believe in his abilities, but giving him a true shot to earn back playing time — has meant the world to Barnes.
“Man, it’s something different here,” he said. “I know I haven’t been anywhere else, but you talk to a lot of guys in this locker room, and it’s not like this everywhere. It’s not like you can get every opportunity. Even the guys on the practice squad. When you’re in Detroit, you’re not just on the practice squad; you’re waiting for your name to get called to go play.
“It meant a lot to me and it really showed me what type of people Dan (Campbell), Brad (Holmes) and coach Shep are,” Barnes said. “Did I have doubts? Yeah, I thought there was no way I’d be able to come in here and start over a guy who started last year or a guy we just drafted in the first round. I got in my head a little bit about that, but when I sat back and thought about who I am, what type of player I want to be and what I can be, I changed my mentality. I know I deserve to be in this league, and I was going to do everything I could to fight my way into being a starter or getting playing time this year to help our team win.”
No longer does Barnes feel like an imposter. He now believes with every fiber of his being he belongs and he can make a difference in Detroit.
“Looking back, reflecting on myself, I realized what I could do,” Barnes said. “I looked back at previous tape and saw examples of what I had done in this league already. That gave me the confidence I needed. From this year forward, I’ll never let anyone take my confidence from me again. I know where I want to go and I know what player I can be and what I can bring to the table. That’s all the confidence I need.”