GREEN BAY – This wasn't exactly an ideal year to be an undrafted rookie trying to make it in the NFL.
Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, offseason programs were moved to online-only classes. Preseason games were wiped off the schedule and teams were instructed to reduce their rosters to 80 players if they wished to practice in full during an already abbreviated training camp.
While that decision caused many undrafted stories to end before they even started, it was all part of the measures the league and the players' union had taken to not jeopardize the start of the 2020 regular season.
For Krys Barnes, that meant he had three weeks, between the Packers' first practice on Aug. 15 and final cuts on Sept. 5, to prove he was worth a longer look.
"From the time I started, I had to have confidence in myself. That's what kind of got me through as well as my relationship with God," Barnes said. "I think that's kind of helped me stay calm, helped me stay level-headed throughout this whole process and not get on this rollercoaster of being high and low."
There was no better example of that ebb and flow than the seven days between the time Barnes was released during final cuts and then signed to the Packers' active roster in time for the regular-season opener in Minnesota.
Barnes wasn't just a feel-good story who extended Green Bay's streak to 16 consecutive years of having an undrafted rookie on its initial 53-man roster. The Packers needed him with rookie fifth-round pick Kamal Martin on injured reserve.
In lining up alongside veteran Christian Kirksey in the base defense, Barnes became the first undrafted rookie linebacker to start an opener for Green Bay since the 1970 NFL-AFL merger.
Despite playing only 85 snaps (35.1%), the 6-foot-2, 229-pound linebacker is second on the Packers' defense with 23 tackles (14 solo) through four games – and he's done so without having missed a tackle yet this season, according to Pro Football Focus.
"It meant a lot getting those plays. No matter how many I did get, you just want to treat it like it was gold," Barnes said. "For me, to be able to get the chance to go out there and display my ability and contribute to the team in some sort of fashion is all I could ask for."
With Kirksey also on injured reserve with a pectoral injury, Barnes graduated to the next level of coordinator Mike Pettine's defense in wearing the communication helmet during portions of last week's 30-16 win over the Atlanta Falcons.
Splitting those duties with second-year linebacker Ty Summers, Barnes recorded six tackles in a season-high 38 defensive snaps. He also flashed his athleticism in coverage, getting his hands on a Matt Ryan pass targeted for Olamide Zaccheaus on a crosser.
"He's always got that look in his eyes that he's locked in and I think the guys respect that," said Pettine last week. "He soaked it up right from the beginning going back to our virtual meetings in the spring and it was obvious he had a good handle on it right at the beginning of camp and that continues to carry over into the games.
"He's proven that he can handle it and certainly worthy of the reps he's getting and potentially even more."
While Kirksey's status remains unclear, the Packers could be getting Martin back in the near future. The rookie linebacker returned to practice on Monday, beginning a 21-day window in which Green Bay can return him to the active roster.
Whatever happens, Barnes has been grateful for the opportunities he's been afforded during the first month of the season. At the very least, he's settled nicely into that second inside linebacker role on run downs the Packers have been trying to fill since Jake Ryan's knee injury three years ago.
Due to traveling restrictions, Barnes and the rest of the Packers' roster were unable to leave Green Bay during the bye week. Instead, Barnes used the week off to heal up, play a few video games with roommate Jordan Love, and catch his breath after what has been a hectic start to his NFL career.
"It's tremendous for me to get out there and be able to see the things I want to see to get better at," Barnes said. "Even talking with my coach (Kirk Olivadotti) on this bye week, we covered some things to help me make that next step coming up for this next game. I'm going to continue to take it a game at a time and continue to improve each week. That's the goal."