In this year’s NFL draft, the Jets selected former Western Michigan linebacker Zaire Barnes in the sixth round. Today, we break down Barnes in detail.
The 23-year old Barnes is listed at 6’1” and 232 pounds and was a first-team all-MAC selection last season as he racked up 93 tackles and broke up nine passes.
Barnes was a three-star high school recruit and opted to enrol at Western Michigan where he would play in all 13 games in a reserve role in his first season. He recorded 15 tackles on defense and special teams.
In 2019, his second season, Barnes started four games and ended the season with 29 tackles, 3.5 tackles for loss and a pass breakup.
Unfortunately, he had to redshirt the 2020 season due to a serious knee injury, but he returned in 2021 and was a full-time starter over the next two seasons.
In 2021, he had 68 tackles and three fumble recoveries as he was named to the all-MAC team as a second teamer. He also set career marks with seven tackles for loss and 2.5 sacks.
Last season saw him rack up 93 tackles and nine pass breakups on his way to all-MAC first team recognition. He also added 4.5 tackles for loss and a sack.
Barnes wasn’t invited to the scouting combine or the senior bowl, but was one of the standouts at the NFLPA Collegiate Bowl and had a good pro day workout. Despite this, he wasn’t on many radars when the Jets selected him in the sixth round.
The Jets clearly seem excited about Barnes’ potential, though, and he’s already signed his rookie deal.
Now let’s take a look at what Barnes brings to the table, divided into categories.
Barnes has adequate size and length and is one of the faster linebackers in this year’s class with a 4.56 time in the 40-yard dash. He also posted solid explosiveness and agility numbers and 20 bench press reps.
Barnes, who played as a running back and safety in high school, was listed as a defensive back early in his career but basically lined up in the box or matched up in the slot the majority of the time regardless of his listed position.
He hasn’t lined up deep like a conventional safety very often, but does take some deep drops in coverage. He also creeps up and lines up on the edge from time to time.
Barnes has been a productive run defender over the course of his college career. As a mark of his consistency, he posted the 7th best run defense grade according to Pro Football Focus for linebackers in the 2022 season.
He displays good play recognition and gap discipline and the quickness to beat blocks and fill running lanes.
While Barnes can display over-aggressiveness at times, running himself out of plays or allowing himself to get sealed off, this was an area where he showed growth in his final season.
His speed is an asset in pursuit and he generally seems to take good angles to the ball carrier.
Barnes has potential to be a good coverage linebacker at the next level. With his experience at defensive back and the variety of ways he was used by the Broncos, he looks comfortable dropping into coverage and staying with his man down the field.
He has good timing and an ability to make plays on the ball and disrupt at the catch-point and, although he only had one interception in his college career, he added another at the Collegiate Bowl.
This would have been a pick-six but there was a penalty on the return. He almost scored on the one in the Collegiate Bowl too, as he was bumped out of bounds near the goal line.
While he looks comfortable in man-to-man assignments, in zone coverage situations there are times where his positioning or awareness can let him down.
Barnes’ tackle efficiency was a major concern after the 2019 season, where he had 13 missed tackles and only 29 tackles. That gave him one of the worst missed tackle percentages in the nation at his position. He’s improved dramatically since then, although he will still miss tackles from time to time.
He has excellent closing speed and can pack a punch when hitting. He’s also adept at reaching beyond his frame to make an arm tackle and can stop runners in their tracks in the hole.
Barnes had just two forced fumbles in his college career, but did recover six over the past two seasons, which could be a useful trait to bring to a defense that was challenging some all-time marks for worst fumble luck during most of the 2022 season.
Barnes typically rushed the passer several times per game and generated pressure at an acceptable rate even though he only had 3.5 career sacks. He hasn’t just generated pressure on unblocked rushes, either. The Broncos regularly got him to rush off the edge against a blocker or involved him in some of their complex stunts up front.
On this play he scrambles to his feet after the cut block and still manages to get a hit on the quarterback.
Special teams is somewhere Barnes should be able to make an immediate impact. He played over 500 special teams snaps in college, contributing on every single unit, as a blocker and rushing or covering kicks. He had some good production with 15 career special teams stops.
He also had a few missed tackles, three penalties and overpursued on one long return, but generally Barnes’ contributions were valuable and he has said that he enjoys special teams.
Barnes isn’t afraid to mix it up in the tackle box, attacks the line of scrimmage with aggression and is physical when slowing his man down or contesting catches in coverage.
His discipline is sound though. His only three defensive penalties in college were for a delay of game, jumping offside and an illegal blindside block on a turnover.
Here’s an impressive play where Barnes takes on a pulling lineman to make the stuff in the backfield.
Barnes is a player who makes good reads although there are times where he seems to doubt himself and hesitates before moving laterally.
He navigates traffic well and anticipates where blocks are coming from so he’s able to beat them to make a play.
While Barnes doesn’t make a lot of mental errors, he can be over-aggressive or a step slow to react at times.
As noted, his awareness could be better when in zone coverage.
Barnes is a high-character individual, who worked hard to learn multiple roles and said that this gave him confidence on the field. He relished being versatile so he could help the team in as many different ways as possible. He has said he’s particularly eager to learn from CJ Mosley with the Jets.
On the field, he brings energy and aggression and will be fired up to make plays and noticeably angry at himself if he makes a mistake.
He was a team captain at Western Michigan and was heavily involved with a charity called “Uplifting Athletes”.
Barnes suffered a torn ACL ahead of the 2020 season which he says was a galvanizing moment because it inspired him to look after his body and maximize his preparation for every game and practice. That more professional approach led to him being a full-time starter on his return and has now given him this NFL opportunity.
He otherwise missed just two games in college, both of which were in 2019. In high school, he missed some time with a broken thumb.
The obvious spot for Barnes to compete for is that which Kwon Alexander occupied last year. He was on the field whenever the Jets were in a base package with three off-ball linebackers and also replaced Quincy Williams in certain looks.
If Barnes is able to earn that role, his potential as a coverage linebacker could see him getting sub-package work while Williams starts and plays the early downs. His main competition for that role right now is probably Hamsah Nasirildeen, although the Jets may opt to play more three-safety packages and operate less out of base personnel looks.
The Jets could still re-sign Alexander, which would hurt Barnes’ chances of contributing on defense as a rookie, but then he can instead focus on developing to become a contributor in the years ahead and perhaps nailing down a role on special teams.
The late rounds are an ideal time to take a flyer on a guy like Barnes who should at least contribute on special teams and has the potential to play an early role and eventually develop into a key contributor.
Obviously he didn’t come from a major program, so it will be a jump in level for him, although he has had good games against the likes of Pitt and Michigan State, so hopefully he can be confident of having similar success against NFL talent as he develops.
If Barnes does turn out to be a good player, his athletic ability and coverage skills should make him a valuable asset but even if he’s limited to special teams duties initially, the Jets should still get some kind of early returns on their investment.