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Derek Barnett named to list of top 5 NFL breakout candidates

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The NFL analyst has high hopes for the second year end

Tim Heitman-USA TODAY Sports

On Thursday Lance Zierlein of NFL.com pegged five players from the 2017 NFL Draft that he predicted will have breakout years in 2018. On the list was San Francisco 49ers defensive end Solomon Thomas, Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes, Oakland Raiders cornerback Gareon Conley, Cleveland Browns tight end David Njoku, and of course the reason for this piece, Philadelphia Eagles defensive end Derek Barnett.

“The 14th overall pick in 2017 got out of the gates with a solid rookie season, posting five sacks as a rotational defensive end. Barnett played in just 41.6 percent of the defensive snaps, but with the Eagles releasing Vinny Curry this offseason, he should see a lot more playing time in 2018, even though Philadelphia still has good depth at the position.

Barnett is more of a technician than speed rusher off the edge, so he ran to much more traffic than he was used to as he transitioned to battling NFL offensive tackles. Barnett has quick, strong hands and finds efficient paths to the quarterback. His season as an understudy likely gave him the experience he needed to help convert a higher percentage of his rushes into hurries and sacks.”

Despite blistering production in college, Barnett had questions to answer in his transition to the NFL. There were noted concerns about his ability to transition speed-to-power, slow starts, lack of inside counters to combat vertical sets, and doubt if his “burst” was more a product of snap jumping. After all, Barnett was the most penalized defender in the NCAA for jumping offsides a multitude of times. While some questions remain concerning his game as a full-time starter, he’s in a fantastic situation in Philadelphia, one that keeps his legs fresh and his ears pinned back.

As a rookie, Barnett tallied up 5 sacks and 37 total pressures, tied for 1st among 4-3 defensive end rookies and putting his pass rush productivity 3rd among rookies that took at least 25% of pass rushing snaps. This type of contribution early in his career, that puts him in league with fellow first round picks Myles Garrett and Takkarist McKinley, is an encouraging sign for the former Volunteer.

Barnett’s best game came against the Dallas Cowboys in Week 11, where he racked up 2 sacks, 6 pressures on only 22 snaps. Looking at what made Barnett’s effort so fruitful that game, you begin to see a player that checks boxes in terms of being capable of consistently producing at the next level.

Barnett often saw a tight end lined up slightly detached from the left tackle. In this case it’s tight end Jason Witten, who gives him a chuck before releasing into his route. This is done to allow tackle Byron Bell to get vertical in his set, with an aim towards taking away Barnett’s patented dip-and-rip. Remember the concern I had with Barnett converting speed-to-power in college? Looks solid here. He plays with his hands above his eyes and creates a push that nearly disrupts quarterback Dak Prescott’s throw.

Here Witten is lined up close to Bell, affecting the path in which Barnett can take to the Quarterback yet again. At the snap Witten darts across the formation, giving a split zone look. This leaves Barnett one-on-one with Bell, giving Barnett a chance to show off his ability to bend against Bell’s pathetic and late “punch”. You’ll notice Bell lacking the foot quickness/hands to affect the arc.

The Cowboys figure if they can’t block him, use his aggression against him with a play action boot out of a three tight end set. No way the rookie sees it coming, right? Wrong. Barnett shows off some special change of direction ability that flashed in his 88th percentile 6.96 3-cone at the Combine.

Changing direction is one thing. Tackling the elusive Prescott in space is an entirely different beast, but Barnett stays aggressive and hunts Dakota down like a dog.

Before we get into this play, have you noticed a trend in how the Cowboys are trying to add extra protection to help their offensive line? Running back Rod Smith begins to release to the outside, possibly with the instruction to chip Barnett, possibly not. Either way, he gets a good jump at the snap, causing Bell to turn his butt perpendicular with the sideline, which is never good.

You can call the dip-and-rip the chip-and-dip because Barnett eats it up (to quote Jon Gruden, probably) and is able to sustain his bend just long enough to get his hand out and cause a fumble that is returned by linebacker Nigel Bradham for a touchdown.

Beyond the Cowboys game, Barnett showed up in big moments just as he did in college. His forced fumble in the NFC Championship Game helped shut out the Minnesota Vikings after their initial scoring drive and his fumble recovery in the Super Bowl essentially shut the door on the New England Patriots. In summation, it’s games like this that point to an exciting future for Barnett, at the very least as a Cowboy killer. Zierlein recognizes this potential, the rest will catch up soon enough.