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Eagles Offseason Evaluations: DE Derek Barnett

Let’s talk about Derek Barnett, and let’s talk about how we talk about Derek Barnett

NFL: Buffalo Bills at Philadelphia Eagles Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

Let’s rewind the clock two years. Derek Barnett is a promising rising junior for the Tennessee Volunteers; Doug Pederson, the consolation price behind Ben McAdoo, represents a futile attempt to bring back the Reid years; Brandon Graham averages less than 5 sacks per season.

You guys remember that time, right? Back when Earl Thomas was the one that got away, the mythical cure-all for a defense that had been struggling for years. For many fans, Graham was a disappointment and inconsistent—but he was misunderstood.

The sack numbers lied, failing to reflect Graham’s ability. Even in the two seasons since, Graham’s sack numbers haven’t blown anyone away—7.5 sacks per—but his film has. Film always tells the true story. Graham is a highly effective EDGE rusher in that he wins with hand usage

So let’s talk about Derek Barnett’s 5.5 sacks. Top-5 among rookies, a number Brandon Graham didn’t reach until his 3rd pro season. Barnett was just named the second-year to watch by 3 of 4 NFC East analysts—but what if the sack numbers lie, just as they did for Graham?

If the truth’s in the film—and it always is—we’ve got a bit of a problem.

On the first two reps, Barnett is unblocked. On the third, he’s blocked by a tight end. On the fourth and fifth, he’s blocked by T.J. Clemmings and Byron Bell, which is basically like being blocked by a tight end. And on the sixth, he’s blocked by an actual starting offensive tackle—Matt Kalil, who isn’t great. And he loses to him, grabbing a scrambling Cam Newton for half a sack.

I’m gonna be honest with you—there’s one high-quality rep here. The T.J. Clemmings rep (#4, against the Redskins) shows a good read of an OT’s set, a good reaction to the poor punch, and nice bend to finish. The Jordan Reed (#3) and Byron Bell (#5) reps show good bend, good use of hands to clear the corner—but he had those players beat the moment they tried to get off the line (and failed abysmally). They were cannon fodder to a player of Barnett’s caliber.

And that’s important to note: Barnett is a high-caliber player. He has a good skill set; he works hard; he has a promising future. I’m not here to argue that. I’m here to argue that, firstly, his sack numbers are not indicative of significant talent (which I think is clear); his tape is a better indicator of his talent; and his tape shows a player that’s limited at the NFL level.

Let’s watch Derek Barnett get stonewalled by Matt Kalil a bunch of times.

Now, Kalil isn’t good, and while Barnett won some reps (we’ll get to those), he should have won more. But it’s not enough to say “Derek Barnett should have beaten Matt Kalil more.” That doesn’t matter; that’s not interesting. What’s missing on the reps that Barnett loses? What does Kalil’s approach tell us about what he expects from Barnett? How does Barnett become better? This matters.

When we evaluate players, we talk about how they win, so we know where to put them. We’ve always known that Barnett is an elite cornerer. He anticipates the snap very well, gets depth with his first step, and uses his hand and bend to soften the edge and create a track to the quarterback—and he’s been that way since he was a Volunteer. That’s why everyone loved his fit in the Jim Schwartz system—because of the Wide 9 alignment. It would provide him the best initial path too the corner, immediately threatening the depth of the tackle. Schwartz was going to put him where he wins.

But there’s a lotta Wide 9 in those reps, folks—which begs the question, where’s the success? It’s easier to key on a college snap count, over which college quarterbacks have less control; it’s easier to beat a college offensive tackle to landmarks, where NFL athletes aren’t the ones racing against you. What was supposed to be Barnett’s calling card out of school—winning the corner—didn’t translate immediately in Year 1.

What happens when Barnett can’t beat an offensive tackle to the corner? It’s not good. We see Barnett try to bullrush Kalil a couple of times and fail to generate consistent displacement; throw cross chops and rips to create a corner and fail to land significant blows; work back inside and lack the juice to get there.

Here’s the interesting bit: Barnett failed to beat Kalil around the edge all game long—but the threat of that attack was enough to cause issues for Kalil. Twice, Barnett showed the ability that truly counts: not jumping a snap count or winning a first step, but the reading a tackle’s set, reading a quarterback’s drop, and executing the smart rush plan.

The inside counter—whether a swim move, a hump move, or the spin moves shown here—is the necessary companion to every speed rush like Barnett’s. On both instances of the spin move, Barnett is able to get deep enough vertically that Kalil opens his hips, fearful of the outside rush. Once Kalil’s momentum is pushing deep, Barnett can throw that spin move, shoving Kalil out of the way and generating the inside rush lane.

But the inside counter is also messy—which makes sense, as Barnett’s still developing the technique. When you throw the spin move, you want to be just landing on your fifth step, you want to be as deep as the offensive tackle’s back shoulder, and you want your momentum coming through him, into the quarterback.

That first rep? Ugly. Short, choppy steps that really don’t threaten the outside corner of the tackle. Barnett’s weight is outside of the tackle’s frame, which doesn’t draw out the tackle’s punch or clear the space for the inside lane. It’s a bad rep that looks better because it’s a quarterback draw the whole time—and without the draw as the designed play, this spin move never wins.

The second one looks much better—Barnett actually attacks depth, gets Kalil’s hands extended by working into his frame. But that’s the nature of the Barnett beast right now—he’s a young rusher who needs polish. Some moves are going to land; some won’t.

But this circles us back to the original point: the spin move matters as a counter to the speed rush. Dwight Freeney, who made it famous, made it famous only because he could threaten the corner, which forced tackles to respect his outside game. Barnett’s game in college was cornering—but his game thus far in the NFL has been hustle, landing the occasional rush move, aaaaand being unblocked.

Which leads us to our final point: Barnett’s talent being capped. If you follow my Draft coverage, you know that I wasn’t a fan of Barnett at 14 overall. I thought it too rich. I viewed him as a 6-8 sack ceiling sort of player. A good EDGE2 on a 4-3 team, worthy of a Round 2 selection. After one season, my opinion has not changed.

That brings us to this.

Barnett had 4.5 sacks across the regular season. We hear a lot about “second-year EDGE rushers taking a big step forward”—it’s a common media narrative. It’s also not really indicated by sack numbers—which is how most pundits are currently measuring Derek Barnett’s ability, so really that makes no sense. Since 2000, first-round EDGE rushers add 1.37 sacks to their rookie total in their second year (median: 1). That’s not a particularly noteworthy leap—which 54% of respondents noted in the poll.

But the question is, how much higher can we expect Barnett to climb? He’s likely to get around 5-7 sacks this upcoming season—and that’s going off of his inflated rookie sack numbers—and we’re assuming that his snap count numbers rise beyond the 41% he played this season, despite the addition of Michael Bennett. Among those 159 Round 1 defensive ends drafted since 2000, only 42 have ever reached double-digit sacks (26.4%). 22 of those 42 hit it within their first three seasons. That is to say, if Barnett doesn’t get a double-digit sack season within the next two years, there’s about an 88% chance he never will.

Of course, as we’ve highlighted, sack numbers aren’t necessarily illustrative of talent or disruption. But Brandon Graham isn’t much of a rule; he’s an exception. If Barnett is ever to develop into a dominant player, worthy of the 14th overall pick invested in him, he’ll have to show improvement in the box score within the next two seasons.

So what do I expect from Barnett in 2018 and 2019? Honestly, much of the same. Barnett is a limited athlete who is no longer much smarter than his college opponents, returning to his cornering success of Tennessee is likely a pipe dream for Barnett. Because he’s a hard worker with good hands, he’ll continue to improve his rush moves, increase the frequency with which he generates his own rush angles, and use his characteristic bend to finish. He’ll get better.

But the character of his game likely has to shift. It’s not about being a cornering expert; it’s about cornering well enough to build off of that threat. Derek Barnett is in the infant stages of a difficult maturation, and our expectations should be tempered for the next couple seasons to come.

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