BY MIKE KAYE

UPDATED MAY 07, 2024 9:18 AM

Within a process that favors youth, size, and speed, it was easy for the NFL to overlook Michael Barrett. The 5-foot-11, 233-pound, 24-year-old linebacker was the 240th player selected in April’s NFL Draft.

But the Carolina Panthers, who had previously checked off the youthful size-speed prospect box in earlier rounds with the likes of Texas running back Jonathon Brooks and his college teammate, Ja’Tavion Sanders, saw something beyond the numbers with the former Michigan team captain.

The evaluators saw a smart, tenacious football player when they broke down Barrett’s film.

“Really good instincts, really good nose for the ball,” said Panthers general manager Dan Morgan after making Barrett the final pick of the exec’s first NFL Draft as Carolina’s top decision-maker. “He’s been productive — a guy that we thought highly of. Think he has a lot of potential and we’re excited about him.”

SIZE IS SIZE, BUT FOOTBALL IS STILL FOOTBALL

There’s evidence of Barrett’s football makeup scattered across his resume.

The former quarterback threw for 4,640 yards and 45 touchdowns during his time leading Lowndes High School’s offense in Valdosta, Georgia. He was a dual-threat signal-caller who picked up 2,647 career rushing yards and 38 rushing touchdowns. And while his diminutive stature gave college programs pause about his prospects at quarterback, Barrett was still pursued as a three-star athlete.

“I was always told I wasn’t good enough to play quarterback … or wasn’t tall enough play quarterback,” Barrett said. “I couldn’t do this, couldn’t do that. I’ve always just kind of been a self-motivator. Somebody who is not really worried about what he or she’s got to say about me. I know what I can do. I know the type of player I am, the type of dude I am.”

Barrett needed to carve out a role early in his tenure at Michigan.

He spent time on special teams, returning kicks, blocking for punts and performing tricks plays — including a 25-yard pass to future Cincinnati Bengals first-round pick Dax Hill during his sophomore campaign. He eventually worked his way into a permanent role on defense, when future Seattle Seahawks head coach Mike Macdonald joined the program as defensive coordinator in 2021.

While Macdonald on only spent one season in Michigan, his impact on Barrett lasted until the player’s final days in Ann Arbor.

Barrett would become a fixture of the Wolverines’ success under former head coach Jim Harbaugh during their respective final three years with the program. Barrett won more games in a Michigan uniform than any other player in program history — an all-time roster that includes the likes of Desmond Howard, Charles Woodson and Tom Brady.

null

Barrett wasn’t just along for the ride, either. He had standout moments that are solidified in Michigan lore.

There was the back-to-back interception game against Rutgers in 2022 when Barrett took his second interception to the house for a pick-six. There was the broken helmet performance against Maryland in 2023 — Harbaugh actually kept the broken equipment as a trophy of sorts. And then there was the four-tackle performance in Michigan’s 34-13 national championship win against Washington in January.

Through it all, Barrett — who played in 64 games (35 starts) over five seasons — kept his edge.

“Just being able to go out there and prove myself right more than just trying to prove other people wrong,” Barrett said about mindset. “But that chip, I feel like it’s been on my shoulder my whole career and it’s just getting bigger, to be honest.”

PERENNIAL UNDERDOG

Barrett — who will turn 25 by the end of his rookie season — profiles as an NFL long shot on paper.

But while the measurements — in both time and size — aren’t all that alluring, Barrett’s toughness, tenacity and natural leadership ability should give him a chance in Carolina. The Panthers were searching for “dawgs” this offseason, and they brought in a perennial underdog who has consistently endured to overcome his shortcomings.

“I really don’t see the size thing being an issue,” Barrett said. “Like none of that matters. If I’m taking on a block, I don’t have to be the biggest one to slip that block or go around and make that tackle. There’s other ways to make a tackle than to take on a block or to do it the basic way or stereotypical long way. I feel like just being able to use your hands, like just kind of being undersized, you got to do everything a little, just that one step more than everybody else.”

Michigan linebacker Michael Barrett warms up before the national championship game at NRG Stadium in Houston on Monday, Jan. 8, 2024. Junfu Han Junfu Han / USA TODAY NETWORK

Barrett finished his tenure with the Wolverines with 208 total tackles (12.5 for loss), 8.5 sacks, two interceptions, four forced fumbles and four pass breakups.

During the pre-draft process, Barrett was able get in front of scouts and coaches and give them a glimpse into his football IQ and underdog mindset. Barrett clearly stood out to the Panthers on the path to the draft.

“I kind of just like to be different, like to be my own person,” Barrett said. “Like to learn and do things my own way. And do things that I feel work best for me because everything kind of works differently for everybody.”

A FAMILIAR ROLE

Barrett will need to earn a job on special teams to make the Panthers’ roster this summer. As a seventh-round pick, he’s essentially in the same spot as an undrafted rookie free agent, as he is also fighting for his NFL life.

But Barrett comes to Carolina well-prepared for special teams coordinator Tracy Smith’s group. Outside of punter and kicker, he’s played nearly every role on the Wolverines’ special teams unit over the past five years.

“I feel like I could literally come and play on any four phases of special teams, whether it’s kickoff, kick return, punt return, wherever they need me to go,” Barrett said. “That’s kind of what I’ve been. Kind of that work horse at Michigan. I’ve played all four core special teams.

Nov 11, 2023; University Park, Pennsylvania, USA; Michigan Wolverines linebacker Michael Barrett (23) interacts with fans following a game against the Penn State Nittany Lions at Beaver Stadium. Michigan won 24-15. Mandatory Credit: Matthew O’Haren-USA TODAY Sports Matthew O'Haren USA TODAY NETWORK

“I was pretty much — we don’t give like special teams captains, but I was pretty much a special teams captain for a couple of years. I was like the (personal protector) on our punt (team) — was like one of the most important positions on punt.”

Barrett knows that the more that he can do, the better chance he will have in becoming a key role player for the Panthers.

He’s willing to do whatever it takes to make a name for himself in Carolina, the same way he became a vital presence in Ann Arbor.

Said Barrett: “Any position that they need me to do in Carolina, I’ll fill that spot.”

About the Author: Mike Kaye covers the Carolina Panthers for The Charlotte Observer. Kaye previously covered the entire NFL for Pro Football Network, the Philadelphia Eagles for NJ Advance Media and the Jacksonville Jaguars for First Coast News. He is a graduate of the University of North Florida.

Leave a Reply