Linebacker Derrick Barnes played 448 snaps on defense as a rookie fourth-round pick for the Detroit Lions last season.
He had his ups and downs, like most rookies, but was starting to put it together and headed in the right direction towards the end of the season.
With an offseason to focus on his game and continue to fine tune his body, Barnes was expected to start at one of the stacked linebacker spots alongside Alex Anzalone when training camp began.
That's exactly how camp started for Barnes, too. But then rookie sixth-round draft pick Malcolm Rodriguez started making plays. Rodriguez made some more plays and continued making plays, until he went from working with the third team to the second team and then mixing in with first team. Now he and Barnes are in competition for a starting spot with one preseason game to go and just a few days of practice left.
That competition has forced Barnes to elevate his game. Linebackers coach Kelvin Sheppard said Thursday he's seen Barnes rise to the challenge over the last week or so.
"Derrick Barnes is coming," Sheppard said. "And that's a real thing. That player is a very explosive, very violent, very strong linebacker.
"For Derrick, it's always been above the neck. It's nothing below the neck. He has everything you're looking for from the linebacker spot below the neck. It's above the neck and that comes with time on the field."
Barnes played a lot on the ball in college at Purdue as a pass rusher. To play off the ball as a stacked linebacker in the NFL at a high level takes reps. When things are moving, a player has to know his keys and diagnose what he's seeing in front of him quickly and react rapidly to make a play. We've certainly seen more consistency in that aspect with Barnes over the last week. Barnes has noticed it too.
"My day-by-day routine is to try to get better. Try to eliminate the mistakes and come out and have fun," Barnes said after practice Thursday. "Knowing the game and going out there and executing whatever coach wants me to."
One of the things that has elevated Rodriguez to first-team reps over the last couple weeks is his understanding of the game and his quick diagnosis of what's happening in front of him, which is pretty uncanny for young player. He's just always had to fight the perception of being undersized at 5-foot-11 and 230 pounds.
With Barnes, he's got the size (6-0, 238), speed and explosiveness that is ideal for the position. It's just getting him to a point where the game slows down because he knows what he's looking for, diagnoses it quickly, and goes and destroys it.
Barnes said he and Sheppard have been working a lot on that aspect of his game.
"Just the mental aspect. (Sheppard) is really big on that and has helped me out a lot and kind of understand more about football, not only just going out and hitting somebody, but just the route concepts and things the offense is looking to do to the defense," Barnes said. "It's a lot, but he's helped me out a lot."
Sheppard likes the work Barnes has put in, and we've seen some of the results show up on the practice field and in the preseason, especially last week in Indianapolis. The Lions are hoping that continues and Barnes has a key role in their defense, along with Anzalone and Rodriguez.
"That player is a player I am very pleased with right now," Sheppard said of Barnes. "He came into this year raw. I mean raw. Ball go right and he go left.
"Because D. Barnes, he is explosive and fast and he's just running and trying to go make a play vs. reading, keying and diagnosing. That's something he's done better, and Derrick Barnes is for sure in the mix getting reps with the ones and being a guy that's still competing to start."