I have preached and preached and preached that for defensive linemen, it is paramount to prioritize athleticism along the trenches, especially on the edges. Edge rushers need to operate quickly, powerfully and in space more often than not and that requires elite levels of athletic ability.
This is not what you ideally want from your defensive linemen coming out of college. Historically, the best and most productive edge rushers have been great athletes, so this type of tested ability is a huge red flag. However, outliers do happen in the NFL and even among something as athletically trying as being an edge defender. If the athletic ability is not there, what should be in order to help a player be successful?
Derek Barnett may have been sick at the combine, but it was always clear that his game was never predicated on movement. At 6'3" and under 265 pounds with short arms the historic odds are that Barnett will not play out in the NFL. However, when you look at the resume of the three year SEC starter who broke Reggie freakin' White's sack record at Tennessee, you scratch your head and ask "How the hell can this guy not work out in the NFL?"
Derek Barnett is a UPS truck, I have no idea how it goes as fast as it does but it always ends up on time and breaks your packages— CONWAY TWEETY (@edsbs) March 3, 2017
This is as true as a tweet will ever get. Barnett is not a great athlete nor does he come off as being especially fast on tape, but he just gets shit done at the defensive end position.
When we talk about outliers, there are a number of traits that have to be present for athletically challenged players to produce. One is anticipation. Barnett sacked the quarterback over 30 times during his time in college and it came in part due to his ability to time his jump with the cadence of the quarterback. Look at this play. He is almost all the way across the line before the tackle is even out of his stance. The blocker has no chance and Barnett does a great job bending the arc to sack the quarterback.
The other trait needed is a motor. If you aren't moving fast, you better be moving non stop and moving at full stop.
It is so rare to see Barnett give up on a play. He plays every snap like its his last and never seems to wear down. Not only is this a great trait on a per play basis, this is an exceptional attribute to have in the fourth quarter. He will tire down guys blocking him because he is coming at 110% on every play and eventually that pays off.
Barnett's motor was especially important given the amount of double teams he saw in college. He comes full steam through whoever is blocking him and though it may not always yield a sack, the pressure he can create will create opportunities for other players on the defense.
Another aspect of Barnett that will help him be successful is how physical he is and how well he uses his hands.
Barnett knows how to use his hands to keep himself clean from the arms of potential blockers and he has no problem powering through players to make plays against the run. Barnett, overall, is just a very savvy and technically sound player and due to his motor and overall mentality, you are getting that clean technique and high energy on every single play. Regardless of athleticism, having a player like that on your defense is incredibly important.
Barnett is also a very aware player. His ability to stay home on this option play and stop the runner at the line is a sign of a disciplined, intelligent player. His physicality, intelligence and motor give him a chance to impact every play, run or pass.
Markus Golden came into the NFL as an unathletic, smaller, but highly productive college player. The former second round pick has picked up 16.5 sacks in his two years in the NFL and is a major contributor for the Arizona Cardinals. Similarly, Barnett may not blow anyone away with his measurables, but what he brings to the table as a high energy and cerebral player will help him be productive and valuable in the NFL.
It is hard to find these types of outliers in the NFL, but the bottom line with each one is that they are able to work their asses off on every snap and play a smart brand of football. Barnett is exactly this type of player and while he may never be among the JJ Watts, Justin Houstons or Von Millers of the world, he can be a productive NFL player. In terms of draft spot, Barnett may not be the most talented player at the 14th pick in the draft, but when a player can fit on your team and contribute at a high level, the "value" as it relates to a vertical draft board becomes secondary. As a wide nine defensive end, Barnett's motor and physicality would make hims great "finisher" on a line that already creates a lot of pressure. His awareness, grit and ability to bring it on every snap will give any defensive line a viable rusher and run defender. For the Eagles, while there are many directions they could go in the middle of the first round, Barnett's fit on the team with Fletcher Cox and Brandon Graham already in the fold may be too logical to pass up.