What does Zaire Barnes bring to the New York Jets’ defense?
While the New York Jets selected two more players after him, Western Michigan linebacker Zaire Barnes might be the most unknown member of the team’s seven-player 2023 draft class. He doesn’t even have a highlight reel on YouTube.
So, who exactly is Zaire Barnes? That’s what we’re going to find out today.
Let’s dive into Barnes’ analytical profile to get an idea of what he brings to the Jets’ defense. We’ll break down his strengths, weaknesses, role, and more.
Jets 2023 draft class analytical profiles:
Barnes did not participate in the NFL draft combine, but he did test at Western Michigan’s pro day. Here is a look at Barnes’ measurements and drill performances from his pro day, and where they rank all-time among linebacker prospects according to Relative Athletic Score (a 0-to-10 scale representing percentile ranking; i.e. a 6.00 RAS is equal to the 60th percentile):
At a below-average 233 pounds, Barnes is yet another small-ish linebacker in a long line of them added by the Jets since Robert Saleh and Jeff Ulbrich took over the defense in 2021. Saleh and Ulbrich target small linebackers like Barnes because their defensive scheme prioritizes speed over size at the linebacker position – and Barnes has plenty of speed. His 4.56 forty time is good enough for a RAS of 9.33. Barnes also tested well in the broad jump, shuttle, and three-cone.
Overall, Barnes recorded a RAS of 9.12, which ranked seventh-best out of the 30 linebackers to get drafted in 2023. He’s got plenty of intriguing traits to work with from an athletic perspective.
Barnes played in all 12 games for the Western Michigan Broncos in 2022. He took the field for most of the defensive snaps, averaging 62.5 snaps per game.
Barnes typically handled weak-side responsibilities in the Broncos’ base 4-3 defense. This often led to him widening out into a slot-like role; according to PFF’s charting, Barnes lined up in the slot on 25.9% of his defensive snaps in 2022.
Western Michigan used Barnes as a blitzer quite often. In 2022, he rushed the quarterback on 94 snaps, an average of 7.8 per game. The results weren’t great. Barnes finished the season with only 1.0 sack (two half-sacks) and his overall pressure rate was 18.1%, falling below the national average for linebackers (20.7%).
Strength: Impactful run defense without necessarily making the stop
Barnes earned an 88.9 run-defense grade from PFF in 2022, placing him sixth-best out of the 272 FBS linebackers who played at least 200 snaps against the run.
However, Barnes’ raw run-defense statistics were not quite as elite as the run-defense grade PFF gave him. He ranked 157th with a run-stop rate of 7.5%, and his missed tackle rate against the run was 9.2%, which ranked 67th-lowest.
The wide disparity between Barnes’ grade and his on-ball statistics suggests that he was doing an excellent job at the aspects of run defense that cannot be seen on the stat sheet. This lines up with some of the positives that are seen on his scouting reports. Barnes’ NFL.com scouting report lists the following two traits as strengths for Barnes:
- Spies gaps in the defense and will dart in looking to disrupt.
- Drops pads and takes on lead blockers with good leverage.
It appears Barnes is the type of linebacker who knows how to fulfill his assignment and can positively affect the run game even without making the tackle.
Barnes led Western Michigan to second-best in the MAC (out of 12 teams) in rushing defense, allowing 140.1 yards per game.
Barnes’ production in coverage wasn’t as good as you’d like to see from a fifth-year player who is going to the NFL.
Among the 255 FBS linebackers to play at least 200 snaps in coverage, Barnes ranked 70th in PFF’s coverage grade (69.7) and 103rd in passer rating allowed (91.6). Those rankings placed him at the 73rd and 60th percentiles, respectively.
This came against relatively weak competition in the MAC, and Barnes also had the advantage of being a fifth-year college player, so it’s concerning he wasn’t significantly more dominant in coverage than he was – especially as a smaller linebacker whose main appeal is his upside in coverage.
On the positive side, Barnes did rack up eight passes defended in 2022, which is an extremely impressive total for a linebacker – it tied Barnes for the second-most among all FBS linebackers. This suggests he has the potential to develop into an effective defender at the catch point.
However, Barnes gave up too many big plays in coverage. He allowed 10.9 yards per reception on throws into his coverage, which ranked 190th out of 255 qualifiers (26th percentile).
This is what separates late-round “project” prospects from the guys who go in the first round: production versus projection. While Barnes has the potential to become a great cover linebacker simply based on his traits, he hasn’t shown it on the field yet. The Jets’ coaches must help him develop the finer points of his game so he can get the most out of his physical abilities.
Barnes should be able to contribute immediately on special teams.
At Western Michigan, Barnes gained a tremendous amount of special teams experience, playing 549 special teams snaps throughout his career. Most impressively, he logged snaps for all six special teams units:
- 144 in kickoff coverage
- 133 in field goal block
- 118 in kickoff return
- 70 in punt return
- 62 in punt coverage
- 22 in field goal protection
Barnes still played 100 special teams snaps in 2022 despite elevating into the biggest defensive role of his career. He performed very well for the punt and kickoff coverage units, making five tackles in just 41 coverage snaps. He only missed one tackle and committed zero penalties.
Barnes is another athletic specimen at LB for the coaches to work with
As former linebacker coaches who have overseen the breakouts of successful linebackers who were not first-round picks (Fred Warner for Saleh, Deion Jones for Ulbrich), Saleh and Ulbrich firmly believe in their ability to develop late-round linebackers. This is why they have avoided making any big investments at the linebacker position, instead opting to take fliers on toolsy linebackers like Quincy Williams, Jamien Sherwood, Hamsah Nasirildeen, and Barnes.
Williams turned out to be a steal off the waiver wire. Now, we’ll see if the Jets can manage to strike gold on one of their homegrown draft picks. Barnes joins Sherwood and Nasirildeen as another high-upside shot at the dartboard. Saleh and Ulbrich are hoping they can hit the bullseye on just one of these guys.
While Barnes works on improving his defensive game, he should be a valuable special teams contributor in the meantime.
I love the approach the Jets are taking at linebacker.
They can teach scheme and even improve on tackling and recognition…but you can’t teach athleticism.