[NOTE FROM ARIF: I’ve asked Darren Page, lead scout at DetroitLionsDraft.com and contributor at the Bleacher Report (and avid Vikings fan) to give us comprehensive breakdowns on the Vikings rookies. He responded with incredible depth and thoroughness. You can follow him @DarrenPage15 for a stream of his football and non-football thoughts.
He and I would like to thank DraftBreakdown.com and acknowledge NFL Game Rewind for providing all the necessary visual data]
With the ninth pick in the first round of the 2014 NFL Draft, Minnesota selected UCLA outside linebacker Anthony Barr.
Because he’s only played on the defensive side of the ball for two seasons, Barr is one of the most unique prospects in the entire draft class. After struggling to make his mark as a running back through two seasons at UCLA, he made the switch to linebacker with the blessing of new head coach Jim Mora.
Barr took to his new position as a 3-4 rush linebacker immediately. In a renaissance season for UCLA in 2012, Barr totaled 83 tackles, 21.5 tackles for loss, and 13.5 sacks.
His statistical outputs experience a slight dip in 2013. He received far more attention from opposing offenses but was still productive. 66 tackles, 20 tackles for loss, and 10 sacks is nothing to scoff at. Barr also forced six fumbles in 2013.
The way he developed into his role so quickly should speak to his ability to take to coaching. Everything about what he’d been taught in football had gone out the window, and he applied his athleticism to a new position in a hurry.
Anthony Barr’s athletic traits are the most appealing part of his game. That’s why he got drafted where he did. Let’s take a look at how his athletic ability plays into his game and where he still comes up short.
Rushing the passer is what Anthony Barr does best. Even as a 4-3 linebacker, that’s where his biggest impact will be made.
UCLA lined up Barr on the line of scrimmage primarily and had him rush off the edge. Speed is the hallmark trait. That’s how he gets to the quarterback more than any other way. He builds his speed with a quick first step to get off the ball and combines it with flexibility to flatten out around the corner and finish.
Barr’s ability to hit a second gear and accelerate around the corner is something few others rushers do. His acceleration is exceptional.
When he makes his outside move, there’s too much explosion and speed for tackles to mirror him to the edge. Add in his knack for forcing fumbles. Both plays illustrate the way he attacks the throwing hand of the quarterback with terrific awareness and precision.
There are other ways Barr gets to the quarterback as well, but these have a caveat. His counter moves don’t show up every game.
I’m not saying he doesn’t get sacks with them every game. That’s unreasonable to expect. I’m saying he doesn’t even go to them. There were entire games in 2013 where Barr would attempt to rush the corner with speed and never counter, even when failing. It’s about developing these moves to the point that the he can immediately use them based on what a tackle does to combat him. It’s muscle memory.
Using his speed to set up tackles to the outside is a weapon. He needs to further the efficiency of his inside move as a counter, though the flashes are there. This is Barr beating one of the best offensive tackles in college football, Andrus Peat.
You can see that there’s still a bit of hesitation to it. He doesn’t instinctively go to a different rush move, but has the athletic ability to make up for it, at least in college. It goes back to muscle memory, being able to react quickly to what his eyes are telling him as a defender and rusher.
Though Barr wasn’t a resoundingly better player in 2013, he did take a step forward in one aspect of his pass rush repertoire. His power drastically improved. The added bulk from his junior to senior season was obvious just looking at him.
Barr shows development in his speed to power move. He may never play heavier than he is now, so power is not an advantage he will have. It’s still important to have enough functional strength to compress pockets when he can’t get around a tackle.
I’ll get to Barr’s schematic fit in more detail, but his rush lanes will change now. He’ll be used more as a blitzer and even when he plays on the edge, more stunts and twists up front can be expected.
That plays right into Barr’s hands. He has the explosion and flexibility to turn sharp corners and accelerate through gaps.
Getting multiple offensive linemen occupied for a blitzing or stunting rusher will always yield results. Those results are even greater and more frequent with Anthony Barr.
One last point is worth making as it relates to Barr as a rusher. His hand usage isn’t where it needs to be. That isn’t a shocking development, considering he played a position where the only technique required with hands was a stiff arm for two years before making the position change.
With arms over 33 inches long, Barr has the potential to be a technician with his hands. Any description that includes the word “raw” regarding Barr likely comes from his hand usage.
The result of this play is a drawn holding call. While that’s well and good, he should have had a sack after splitting the two blockers. Barr just doesn’t ward off the hands of the blockers with his own, which is a common problem with him. He’s an easy target for pass-blockers too often.
As a whole, Barr has the athletic potential and early refinement to develop into a dynamic pass rusher. His overall repertoire and technique is a work in progress, but he’s well on his way considering how long ago he began doing this.
Run defense isn’t why the Vikings drafted Barr. He will still have to do it in a way that can be relied upon. He has a ways to go in order to get there.
There are a few tools to build on with Barr as a run defender. The first is his pursuit speed. If he gets on his pursuit path with adequate space, he can close in a hurry.
The trick is getting him moving in the right direction and letting his speed have a major impact. When he has to take on blocks at the point of attack, Barr has more functional strength than one may think.
His frame was noticeably more built in 2013 and it showed in his run defense. He holds his ground quite well. Barr also does a fine job playing with his eyes up to locate the football. From the line of scrimmage, he can then control the edge and maintain gap discipline when he has ball picked up.
Even in some of his better plays in run defense, he just doesn’t finish. It shows on that play against USC. There’s inadequate extension of his hands and control in order to shed the block. When a linebacker has a single block from a tight end, he should be expected to free himself.
That is Barr’s kryptonite. He is always getting hung up on blocks. Strength is usually not the issue, even as it relates to his hands. He just hasn’t put it all together in terms of locating the ball, extending his hands, and shedding properly to close on the football.
On this play it’s the shedding of the block. He’s done everything right up until the back comes through his inside gap. Barr should be separating himself from the block with better timing. Then he could get himself in position to make the tackle.
This next play is an example of where he fails to extend his hands in the first place to begin defeating the block.
Oregon runs at outside zone right Anthony Barr. The left tackle isn’t trying to seal him inside or turn him to the outside, but reach him and sustain the block by taking Barr where he wants to go. That puts the onus on Barr to control the block with strength (which he does) and separate himself from it to make the play. He doesn’t get it done and that’s a common occurrence in run defense for him.
Anthony Barr had very few pass coverage responsibilities with the UCLA Bruins. He was their best rusher and an absolute handful for opposing tackles, so it made sense for them. He also hardly played off the line of scrimmage.
Barr is an athlete who isn’t used to moving backwards. That said, he’s shown nimble feet, fluidity, and balance in doing so if you look around enough.
The biggest transition for Barr as a linebacker with coverage responsibilities will be the way he reads the game. As a rusher, it’s the tackle and quarterback. That’s what he is used to reading. On the few occasions Barr did drop from the line of scrimmage for UCLA, he showed hesitation in his reactions. He just doesn’t seem to grasp the information he’s getting from the route runners and the quarterback. This play shows that confusion for him.
By the end of training camp, Anthony Barr will be a much more effective linebacker in coverage simply due to reps. Expectations on Barr in coverage should still be low short-run.
Mike Zimmer runs a classic 4-3 base defense that is quite different than that of the Mike Tomlin, Leslie Frazier, and Alan Williams incarnations. A big difference is what is asked of the linebackers as a group.
When Minnesota selected Anthony Barr, immediate speculation on how he would be used ensued. Until we actually see Barr take the field for Zimmer, gathering info to deduce the plan is all that can be done.
I project Barr to play the role of James Harrison in the strong-side linebacker spot. He won’t have Harrison’s usage with 100% similarity though, at least from I foresee.
If Mike Zimmer sees it that way, then just how often Barr plays will be something to watch. Per Pro Football Focus, James Harrison played 37.2% of Cincinnati’s defensive snaps. It’s tough to imagine Barr playing that little, especially down the road. Harrison hardly saw the field against offenses that like to spread the field. He played 11 of 159 defensive snaps against Detroit and Green Bay in 2013. Minnesota didn’t draft Barr to only be on the field against heavier offensive sets.
Let’s start with base sets and move to the other variations of the defense. That’s where Barr and Harrison should differ.
This is a 4-3 over look, which Zimmer uses more often than not with base personnel. Zimmer’s scheme keeps the Will linebacker stacked behind the 3 technique defensive tackle or on the strong side of the formation. You can see Vontaze Burfict stacked behind Geno Atkins here.
The Sam linebacker will creep forward, even to the line of scrimmage at times, in the 4-3 over set. Playing off the ball is going to be Barr’s biggest adjustment to the NFL. If Barr is in fact the Sam linebacker, Zimmer may adjust the usage of personnel to keep Barr in his comfort zone.
One way to do that is to use more 4-3 under, which puts Barr back on the line of scrimmage in base personnel.
The 4-3 under would get Barr on the ball, walked up next to the defensive end. That’s the alignment he’s going to be more comfortable playing from as a rookie. It remains to be seen just how much weight that holds and if the under is a fit for the rest of the front seven. I think it is.
For most (all?) teams in the league, the nickel package is the defensive set used most often. It might as well be considered the base defense with the way offenses attack in today’s NFL.
There are question marks here because the personnel Zimmer used in Cincinnati for nickel packages kept four down lineman on the field and brought James Harrison off more often than not.
This is why Harrison didn’t play a high snap count, besides being very old. Mike Zimmer won’t keep Barr and his youthful energy on the sidelines. Zimmer dabbled in a 3-3-5 that played more like a typical 4-2-5 nickel in 2013 with Harrison.
More usage of this package in Minnesota seems likely. Zimmer would keep Barr on the field and let the backer do what he does best. Everson Griffen’s experience as an interior rusher means he could be bumped to the inside. Even if that’s not the case a majority of the time, Zimmer rotates his front four with enough regularity to give Barr snaps in a classic edge rusher’s role without always moving Griffen.
In an ESPN interview on the draft’s third day, Zimmer referred to Anthony Barr as his “blitzing linebacker”. I have a couple gifs of what I see are the most likely ways Barr will be sent for the quarterback.
James Harrison floats out over the slot receiver pre-snap and then comes off the edge as the fifth rusher in both plays. Supplementing the front four off the edge seems the most likely usage of Barr as a blitzer. The Vikings did little of that in the previous scheme.
That’s a more traditional usage of Barr. I expect Mike Zimmer, who’s no stranger to creative blitz packages, to utilize Barr in a variety of ways that go beyond just that.
One way Zimmer loves to pressure quarterbacks (or feign pressure) is to put two linebackers in the A gaps.
Doing this slows down the thought process of the center and other interior blockers who must quickly decipher who’s coming and who’s not. With a rusher as explosive as Barr, chaos will ensue for opposing quarterbacks.
Coverage responsibilities for Barr will certainly be few, at least in the early days. He may be tasked with some hook zones. If he plays on the line of scrimmage more, expect him to float out into the flats. Harrison did just a little of this for Cincinnati.
As I have stated, don’t expect the Vikings to ask a lot of Barr in coverage. They’ll be sure not to expose him in man coverage or in too much space.
Ultimately, Anthony Barr is a great fit for Mike Zimmer’s defense. If the coach himself thought Barr fit well enough to push for drafting him in the top ten, who am I to argue?
I have more to say regarding Anthony Barr’s ability. He’s going to be a terrific player for the Vikings eventually. There’s too much explosion, flexibility, agility, and overall football IQ for him to bust or even be a depth player.
I foresee a shaky rookie season with a few splash plays. Barr might not even play as many snaps as some expect due to his limitations against the run and in coverage. If (or once) he grows into a more versatile defensive player who can match everything an offense does, he’ll stay on the field more.
He can still be a very valuable piece just as a rusher. I have doubts for what that means in 2014 for Barr. I don’t have those same doubts long-term. I trust that Mike Zimmer knows what he has and knows how to build Barr into what he wants.