Lionel Barnes didn't allow himself thoughts of a contract extension when he came to training camp this past summer. Barnes wasn't thinking about overcoming bumps and bruises in December because, frankly, he didn't think his chances of making the team were very good.
The journeyman defensive end is one of the feel-good stories of the 2003 season. He came to training camp with the Jaguars after having failed in tries with the Rams and the Colts. He'll finish the season with a new, two-year contract and a sense of accomplishment that he has, finally, established a career in the NFL.
"It was a blessing to make the team and it feels good to finally be a contributor. I'm excited about it and looking forward to my future," Barnes said.
Jaguars coach Jack Del Rio went out of his way to praise Barnes' play early in the season. It quickly became apparent Del Rio considered Barnes more than just roster fodder.
"Before I got here I was thinking, let the chips fall as they may. When I got here I was thinking I was a camp body; it doesn't look good," Barnes said.
But he flashed pass-rush potential early in training camp, then was able to stay away from injury while, at the same time, the Jaguars were suffering from a lack of numbers at the position during Tony Brackens' slow recovery from knee surgery.
Twelve games into the season, Barnes' playing time is increasing, he's got a sack, three passes-defensed, a fumble recovery and a handful of quarterback pressures. More importantly, he's got hope. Finally, he's found a team that wants to keep him around.
"Right now, I'm in the defensive line rotation. Next year, whatever my role is I'll accept it, but I'm sure it'll be a greater role. This is almost a rookie year for me," he said.
"I definitely want to be a starter. One thing coach Del Rio told me that's stuck with me is not to have limitations. I actually used to do that; they labeled me this, so that's all I can be," Barnes added. "I don't know what I can be. I'll reach until I can't go any farther."
One true rookie whose reach has not exceeded his grasp is cornerback Rashean Mathis, who is the NFL's defensive rookie of the month for November. The second-round pick from Bethune-Cookman started all five of the team's games in November. He had moved from safety to cornerback following Jason Craft's knee injury at the start of the month, and appears to have settled in as a long-term starter at the position.
"If it treats me like it's been treating me," Mathis said of cornerback, "yeah, fine. I knew I could play it. With me, it's just getting reps."