Let’s Settle the Anthony Barr Debate

Image courtesy of Vikings.com

I’ll admit it. For a long time I thought Anthony Barr sucked. To be honest I never put much thought into it. I just figured he was playing out of position or he wound up not being the player the team thought he was after being drafted. I mean, it always seemed like he was in the right position to make a big play, but he rarely would. ‘He’s a former first-round pick for [Pete’s] sake,’ I’d growl to my buddies. And his multiple Pro Bowl appearances? Flukes, I thought. It’s the Pro Bowl. I’d rather do my laundry than watch the Pro Bowl. Then, early in the season it struck me — I couldn’t really explain why I felt this way. Why exactly did Barr suck?

It was this question that ultimately led to hours of researching his role and subsequently, his play. What I discovered surprised me…

Back in 2013, the Vikings weren’t very good. Following a disappointing 5-10-1 season in which the defense ranked dead last in the NFL, the team essentially entered rebuilding mode. Head coach Leslie Frazier was fired immediately after the season and his replacement, Mike Zimmer, was hired a few weeks later.

As a rookie head coach in 2014, Zimmer was tasked with transforming the worst defensive unit in the league.

His first order of business? Releasing linebacker Erin Henderson, who had been arrested twice in two months for DWI. A few weeks later, the team re-signed punt returner/cornerback Marcus Sherels and reached a contract extension with defensive end Everson Griffen. In free agency, the Vikings acquired two defensive tackles in Linval Joseph and Tom Johnson as well as cornerback Captain Munnerlyn.

It was a fairly ‘splashy’ inaugural offseason for Zimmer, who had addressed every level of the defense except for one.

Enter linebacker Anthony Barr.

A top prospect

Barr was considered a great pass-rushing prospect coming out of college. After recording 23.5 sacks in two years at UCLA, he was labeled as a 3-4 edge rusher “with the pass-rush potential to effortlessly emerge as a double-digit sack producer,” per his NFL.com draft profile.

The Vikings selected Barr with the 9th overall pick in the 2014 NFL Draft.

At the time, Everson Griffen was a 26 year-old project. So with Jared Allen leaving in free agency and Brian Robison turning 30 years old, it made sense that the defensive guru would want to add a premiere pass rusher to the mix.

Or so it would seem…

While Barr possessed the physical attributes to become a dominant pass rusher, Zimmer chose not to use him in that role. Instead, the first-year head coach decided Barr would become a traditional 4-3 outside linebacker.

Yeah…

It was a peculiar decision. Especially considering Barr’s size and his college production. But it wasn’t Zimmer’s first rodeo. He had deployed linebackers with Barr’s stature ever since his days as defensive coordinator with the Dallas Cowboys in the early 2000’s. Since 2001, the following players have started at linebacker under Zimmer:

  • Markus Steele (6-3, 240)
  • Kevin Hardy (6-4, 259)
  • DeMarcus Ware (6-4, 258)
  • Michael Boley (6-3, 236)
  • Brandon Johnson (6-5, 220)
  • Manny Lawson (6-5, 240)

“There is something to be said about having tall linebackers,” Zimmer told Ben Goessling back in 2015. “It’s harder [for opposing quarterbacks] to throw in the seams,” adding, “the big guys who can run have a little bit more punch to them than the little guys who can run.”

Barr (6-5, 255) has incredible athleticism for his size and has positional versatility that not many players in the league possess. His agility was evident at UCLA when he played running back, wide receiver and tight end his first two seasons as a Bruin. It’s also a major factor why Zimmer drafted Barr to be the Sam (strong-side) linebacker in his defense.

Fast forward to 2018. Now five years into his NFL career…

There are times when Barr looks like a man among boys, surging from one side of the field to the other to track down speedy running backs with ease. But there are also times when he looks atrocious. Case-in-point; the Josh Allen hurdle on Sept. 23 and the Sept. 27 matchup against the Rams in which he gave up 3 touchdowns through the air. And most recently, the Bears game.

These frustrating moments have ALWAYS triggered fans to question why the team isn’t utilizing Barr’s natural abilities. After all, Barr proved during his final two seasons at UCLA that he’s a great pass rusher. So, are the Vikings really getting all they can out of the 26 year-old?

Production

Career stats of Anthony Barr, courtesy of Pro Football Reference:

Defense & Fumbles Table
Games Def Interceptions Fumbles Tackles
Year Age Tm Pos No. G GS Int Yds TD Lng PD FF Fmb FR Yds TD Sk Comb Solo Ast TFL QBHits Sfty AV
2014 22 MIN LB 55 12 12 0 0 0 0 3 2 0 3 27 1 4.0 70 55 15 6 7 7
2015* 23 MIN LB 55 14 14 1 32 0 32 7 3 0 0 0 0 3.5 68 54 14 4 8 9
2016* 24 MIN LB 55 16 16 0 0 0 0 4 1 0 1 0 0 2.0 70 37 33 3 8 10
2017* 25 MIN LB 55 16 16 0 0 0 0 6 1.0 75 52 23 9 4 11
2018* 26 MIN LB 55 13 13 0 0 0 0 2 1 0 0 0 0 3.0 55 39 16 8 4 9
Career 71 71 1 32 0 32 22 7 0 4 27 1 13.5 338 237 101 30 31 37
Provided by Pro-Football-Reference.com: View Original Table
Generated 1/5/2019.

 

In a somewhat eye-opening statistic, Barr has only amassed 13.5 sacks in his NFL career. He also has only one career interception. In 2015. In fact, his stats are not impressive by any stretch of the imagination. But when you factor in his role, everything changes.

This season, Barr rushed the passer on 21.6% of passing plays according to Pro Football Focus. Over his NFL career he’s rushed the passer on 20.2% of passing plays. And while Barr is, in fact, rushing the quarterback more than he used to — 1.4 percent more, the team’s head coach isn’t worried about the percentages.

Following a hamstring injury that kept Barr out for a three-game stretch (in which the team went 1-2) during the season, Zimmer explained his impact on the defense during a Week 11 press conference.

“Number one, he’s smart as heck. So I can tell him to do all kinds of different things, make all kinds of different checks and adjustments,” the head coach said. “There’s just some more things we can do with Anthony that allow us to be a little bit more versatile… He dictates the game in a lot of different ways that don’t show up on the stat sheet, and to me that’s important.”

Still, despite the feelings of a coach that often speaks highly of him, it’s tough to judge whether or not Barr’s play is worthy of an extension. I mean, doesn’t the lack of production speak for itself?

Well, consider the role of Barr’s teammate and fellow linebacker Eric Kendricks. Kendricks also plays an important position in Zimmer’s defense and has led the team in tackles the past four seasons. Still, you don’t see a ton of sacks from him, either. He has more career interceptions than Barr but that’s because he’s a more natural pass defender. Zimmer’s defensive philosophy has always been to make the opposing offense one-dimensional. Thus, the linebackers are often in pass coverage. That must be taken into account when reviewing Barr’s production.


Halftime

Since I wasn’t the only one who had mixed thoughts on the matter, I posed the question with an ill-advised tweet last month… is Barr underrated in his role, does he underperform, or is he misused? Here are some of the responses I received:

@Carson_Dyle: “Whatever promise Barr once had as a pass rusher has largely been squandered by the Vikings. After all, he’s much better [at] covering slot receivers, as we’ve seen. Easily the most overrated Viking defender in a LONG time.”

@Viksfansince98: “He definitely still has that tendency to coast. When he’s pissed off he can play sideline-to-sideline very aggressively but it only comes in short stints. Watch tape of him as a rookie and there’s no comparison. He’s just [simply] not worth the money he would need to retain him.”

@JosephLarsen2: “Underperforms but is also misused. Simply not a great fit in 4-3, Vikings are hammering square peg into round hole. Still, when he gets opportunities to blitz he’s not very affective.”

@DHaklar: “Wow, I thought he had more sacks than that. He’s the Vikes’ best cover linebacker so he’s schemed out of the box on most plays. Every week he shadows TEs and RBs. He almost always bails once he shows A gap pressure to cover the flat.”

@ilesox: “Overrated. That’s why the team had not resigned.”

Pretty thoughtful responses if I must say so. And thank you everyone for your replies. Clearly the opinions of Barr vary, which is nothing new. But following his late-season surge in production, I posted another tweet, seeing if folks had changed their mind about the Vikings’ linebacker. Here’s a few of the reactions:

@MattP_MN: “Give me Sheldon any day of the week.”

@Superskolfan: “If I still had to choose between him and Richardson… I’d still go Richardson… but man is that decision going to be tough”

@CromsCorner: “I don’t think he’s worth keeping for the price he’s going to want. It seems like, at any position in Zimmer’s defense, people can step in and produce. I’d rather lose him and get an O lineman. Lose Rudy. Get another O lineman.”

@Rolltide_mn: “If Barr played with that intensity every week we wouldn’t be asking this question he would already be re-signed.”

@KyleStGermain7: “Never viewed him negatively, I think Sheldon is out sadly. Lined Griffen up At 3T last Sunday could be something that’s permanent next season. And Barr being Zims original draft pick and the leader of this defense don’t see him going anywhere anytime soon”


Game tape

It was Zimmer himself that once accused Barr of having “a tendency to coast a little bit.” And while that comment was made in 2016, Barr’s production had dipped every year since his rookie season. Even so, if I’ve learned one thing as a football writer, it’s that stats don’t tell the full story — especially when it comes to judging a player’s value.

So what does the tape reveal? In the Week 4 matchup in Los Angeles, the whole country witnessed Barr getting torched by the Rams. He allowed four catches for 119 yards and three touchdowns through the air. He received some nasty criticism for his play, including from myself. But was it really all on him? After taking a look at this thread by VT’s Nick Olson, it’s fair to gather that the claims were not completely justified, despite what the TV cameras showed. While Barr certainly had an off-day, consider this… He allowed 73 receiving yards the rest of the season.

In 13 games in 2018, Barr gave up 22 receptions (on 30 targets) for 207 yards and three touchdowns. The 22 catches were the fewest he’s allowed in any season of his career. It’s safe to say the Rams game was an outlier. Here’s a look at Barr’s highlights from the season:

https://twitter.com/Mostly_Always/status/1080939080777637894

As Joseph Tillman pointed out in this article after the Dolphins game, Barr does more than what’s captured on TV. Not only is he one of the best cover linebackers in all of football, he creates opportunities for his teammates, does what he’s told to do (by coach Zimmer) and effectively creates pressure on the quarterback. He’s a multi-threat defender. Therefore, he doesn’t always pad the stat sheets, but his versatility is a major reason the Vikings defense tied for second in the league with 50 sacks in 2018.

That being said, Barr doesn’t always shine on tape. Take this play for example.

https://twitter.com/Luke_Spinman/status/1054545040377171968

Barr goes untouched on a blitz right up the middle. He should be blowing up the running back, crushing him backward into the face of the quarterback. Instead, he mysteriously avoids contact with a much smaller blocker, giving the opposing quarterback an open window to make a throw and takes himself out the play at the same time. While this appears to be another one of those plays that’s ‘out of the norm’ for Barr, he’s known to leave fans scratching their heads with inconsistent play and efforts such as this.

Still, despite the occasional blunders and low stat production, Barr is one of the best outside linebackers in the NFL. He may not be the most impactful player on the stat sheet, but he has quietly become an extremely well-rounded defender.

UPDATE: Nick Olson just sent me Barr’s season-ending results:

  • 2nd in yards allowed per coverage snap,
  • 3rd in targets per coverage snap,
  • 3rd in catches allowed per coverage snap,
  • 1st in pass rushing productivity, and
  • 15th in run defense grade.

Looking ahead

The head coach has made his thoughts clear on the matter many times. Last offseason, Zimmer quelled trade rumors surrounding Barr, stating “Anthony is my guy, No. 1… We are unequivocally not trying to trade Anthony. He’s the first draft pick I ever had with me. He’s helped this defense [become] pretty good.”

Barr has been with the Vikings throughout Zimmer’s entire tenure as head coach. During that time, the defense has literally gone from being the worst in the league to the best in the NFL. But does he actually like the role he’s in?

Well, it’s not just Zimmer that has voiced his feelings. Barr himself has expressed a desire to return to the Vikings on multiple occasions.

Back in August, Barr told Chris Tomasson of the Pioneer Press that he “absolutely” wants to sign a long-term deal with the Vikings. With two pieces of the defense getting locked up (Eric Kendricks and Danielle Hunter) before the 2018 season, Barr was seen as the next logical player to have his contract extended. But with the additions of Kirk Cousins and Sheldon Richardson using up most of the available money, it didn’t happen. Now, with the team stretched thin in the cap department this upcoming offseason, it leaves more questions than answers.

The Vikings are in a peculiar situation when it comes to signing Barr to an extension. Barr’s agent will undoubtedly try to get his client the most money possible. That means paying him like an edge rusher. But being that he’s a traditional 4-3 linebacker, the team will clearly try to pay him as such.

At all costs?

In the last season (5th-year option) of his rookie deal, Barr made $12.306 million. This offseason, when it comes to determining his future, the team has options. They can sign him to a multi-year extension, apply the franchise tag, or let him walk.

A multi-year extension was discussed in a recent article by Mark Craig of the Star Tribune. Craig wrote that the Cleveland Browns signed Jamie Collins to a four-year, $50 million deal in 2017 with $26.4M guaranteed, setting the market for 4-3 outside linebackers. While it’s unclear if Barr would settle for around $12.5M per year, it’s fair to assume the team will use that as a benchmark in negotiations. Barr likely wants more. How much more is the real question.

The franchise tag for a linebacker is projected to be $14.96 million in 2019 per OverTheCap.com. While it may be common knowledge that the Vikings don’t use the franchise tag very often, it doesn’t mean they never will. To say they won’t go that route because of their history is short-sighted. But to argue the team doesn’t have much cap space and would like to bring back Sheldon Richardson and sign some offensive line help in free agency is a more inclusive point.

Another important factor the Vikings must address is how to replace Barr if he walks. He could easily find his way to a team that embraces and utilizes his pass-rushing abilities and no one would blame him. But based on the years of experience he has in Zimmer’s system and the fact the defense has essentially been built around him, it’s hard to believe losing Barr would be in the team’s best interest.

Boasting a staff of Rick Spielman, Rob Brzezinski, Anne Doepner, George Paton and company, the Vikings have some of the best salary cap managers in the NFL. If anyone can figure out how to make the structure of a long-term contract extension work with Barr, it’s them.

The discovery

What I found out this season is that Barr is extremely underrated in his role. He doesn’t suck. In fact, I’d argue the contrary. He’s legitimately one of the best outside linebackers in football. Sure, I’d like to see him rush the passer more, and perhaps the right acquisition this offseason could make that a possibility, but that’s not the point. Like any player he’s going to struggle at times, but like it or not he’s an integral part of an upper-tier NFL defense.

Considering how important Barr is to the Vikings, it would be surprising if the team allowed “Zimmer’s guy” to walk and play elsewhere in 2019. Even if it’s one more year, the team should use any means necessary to bring him back.