GREEN BAY, Wis. – Green Bay Packers linebacker Krys Barnes has a lofty goal.
Lead the NFL in tackles.
Barnes had one of the more incredible rookie seasons last year. An undrafted free agent, he failed to make the opening roster and spent most of the first week of the regular season on the practice squad before being promoted in time to start the opener at Minnesota. He wound up playing in 13 games (missed three due to COVID-19) with 10 starts, and finished second on the team with 78 tackles.
Barnes didn’t even lead the Packers in tackles, and Houston’s Zach Cunningham led the NFL with 163 stops – more than double Barnes’ total.
Dallas’ Jaylon Smith was second with 154, the Giants’ Blake Martinez ranked third with 151, Cleveland’s Joe Schobert finished fourth with 141 and Tampa Bay star Devin White ranked fifth with 140. They were followed by Chicago’s Roquan Smith (139 tackles), Seattle’s Bobby Wagner (138), Indianapolis’ Darius Leonard (132), the Jets’ Neville Hewitt (131) and San Francisco’s Fred Warner (125).
Here’s why Barnes’ goal isn’t simply pie in the sky. As a rookie, he played 421 defensive snaps. That gave him a tackle rate of 5.40 snaps per tackle.
That was better than anyone who finished in the top 10 in tackles. Cunningham’s tackle rate was an exceptional 5.80, Jaylon Smith was 7.04, Martinez 7.04, Schobert 7.87, White 7.08, Roquan Smith 7.31, Wagner 8.28, Leonard 6.25, Hewitt 8.63 and Warner 7.77.
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“It’s definitely a goal,” Barnes said on Monday. “I focus on that stuff each and every week and take those steps to where I’m flying to the ball, getting to the ball, making those plays.”
With the obvious caveat that the first five practices have been without pads, Barnes is off to a tremendous start to training camp. Where there’s the ball, No. 51 is generally there to greet the man carrying it.
“That’s my job,” he said. “My job is to run sideline to sideline and make plays and just go. That’s something we preach all the time.”
But that’s every linebacker’s job description. Barnes just does it better than most, which is why he’s been the No. 1, every-down linebackers throughout camp.
“That’s something I’ve tried to work on since I got in the league,” he said of getting to the ball. “It’s something I didn’t do very well in college so, coming into the league, I wanted to pride myself on being around the ball any way possible. So, wherever the ball is, that’s something we condition as a defense — always run to the ball. So, I just practice that now so it’s a habit to where when game-time comes, it’s second nature, just to be around the ball as much as possible.”
Barnes, high school teammates with Jordan Love in Bakersfield, Calif., was a three-year starter at UCLA. During his final two seasons, he had 15 passes defensed and 20 tackles for losses. Those were impressive numbers at a big-time program. But scouts saw it all with a shrug. Maybe it’s because he’s only 6-foot-1. Maybe it’s because, as Barnes alluded to, he never was a tackling machine. For whatever reason, with no Scouting Combine invite and the Bruins’ pro day canceled due to COVID, Barnes went undrafted last year.
Then came his unusual August in which he was on the practice squad one day and in the starting lineup the next.
“He did it the hard way, because a lot of times you’re not given as many opportunities initially,” coach Matt LaFleur said. “And he just continued to battle. I think he’s a very instinctive player and that really helped us.”
With a new physique (down about 10 pounds to 235) and a new defense, Barnes is eager to write the next chapter to his story.
“A year ago, I had no idea where I was going to be at,” he said, adding: “I had to grow up pretty fast. But the guys around me, the coaching staff, everybody helped me with that transition of each and every day continuing to get better and better. And then the whole offseason, learning the plays, I still feel confident. That whole feeling of not knowing what the NFL was last year, coming in this year having an idea of what it is and that experience, it’s an easier transition learning a new defense and feeling like, ‘OK, I can take a step back and breathe a little bit.’ But there’s still things I have to grow upon. I’m nowhere near where I want to be. There’s guys in our room and our coaching staff and are pushing us all to get where we want to be.”