Undrafted Alex Barrett making most of extra reps from Detroit Lions injuries

Aug 09, 2017 | by Dave Birkett, Detroit Free Press

Alex Barrett has a confession to make.

The first time he talked to Detroit Lions coach Jim Caldwell, Barrett had no idea who was on the other line.

Caldwell phoned Barrett in late April, a few days before the NFL draft, to tell the San Diego State defensive lineman the Lions were interested in bringing him to town.

Barrett had talked to a number of teams in the buildup to the draft, but Caldwell's name did not immediately ring a bell.

"He said, 'This is Jim Caldwell,'" Barrett recalled this week. "I was just taking it like it was another coach and I just said, 'Yes, Coach.' And he was like, 'Has any other head coaches called you?' And I’m like, 'Oh, no.' In my head, I’m like, 'You’re head coach, that’s crazy.' When I put two and two together I’m like, 'Wow, that’s a first.' That really showed a lot of interest."

Caldwell's pre-draft phone call made an impression on Barrett, and when Barrett's agent called with an offer from the Lions after the draft, Barrett jumped at the chance to play for the only head coach who reached out to him.

Since then, Barrett, who got the most guaranteed money of any of the Lions' undrafted free agents, has gotten to know Caldwell quite well - and vice versa.

Eight practices into training camp, Barrett has been one of the Lions' best performing rookies, draft pick or not.

He played as the third defensive end in the Lions' mock game last week at Ford Field, spelling both Anthony Zettel and Kerry Hyder with the first-team defense, and whether he's going against tight ends or offensive linemen, Barrett has been impressive in pass-rush drills during practice. 

"He’s coming along, making progress," Caldwell said. "He’s certainly shown some ability to move his feet. He can rush the passer. He’s adapting pretty well to what we do schematically. Doing a nice job thus far for a young guy.”

A three-year starter at San Diego State, Barrett has made a seamless transition to edge rusher after playing as a five-technique end and undersized nose tackle in the Aztecs' 3-3-5 defense.

He's still undersized for an NFL defensive end at 6 feet 2 and 255 pounds, but he has natural pass-rush ability and quickness.

"Playing inside was more (for the benefit) of the team," Barrett said. "We had injured guys, so I just had to step up and take the role for the team. Going out to end last year, it’s different but I could pick up things real quick. Up here, same thing. It’s really fun."

Playing end in a 4-3 has been liberating for Barrett, who has more room to roam and fewer bodies to contend with on the edge.

He said Lions defensive line coach Kris Kocurek and end Kerry Hyder have helped him refine his pass-rushing technique, and with Ziggy Ansah on the physically unable to perform list, Cornelius Washington out with an ankle injury and Armonty Bryant just back from the PUP list, he's gotten more reps than even he expected coming into camp.

"When older guys get put out or whatever’s going on with them, you just got to take advantage of those opportunities when you get in with the ones or whatever it is," Barrett said. "Just got to make plays, really. Got to do your job, not mess up."

With joint practices on tap the next two days against the Indianapolis Colts and the Lions' exhibition opener after that, Barrett should have even more of chance to shine.

Caldwell said those practices will be a key part of the evaluation for the Lions' young players, and though he's still a bit of a dark horse to make the 53-man roster, Barrett certainly looks like he belongs.

"That’s the unique thing about this league is that the pass rushers come in all shapes and sizes," Caldwell said. "It just kind of depends on their strengths and what they can do on it. He’s one of those guys I think is going to have to work it out, but you can see he’s got up-the-field sort of speed where he can certainly move. He can also crush the pocket a little bit, so he’s got a nice (mix of moves and) Kris will get the best out of him, that’s for certain."