After Anthony Barr’s first two seasons, he was considered one of the most effective all-around linebackers in the league. A down 2016 season created reasonable doubt about his future, but he bounced back in 2017 to have a solid season. Now as the Minnesota Vikings look for different options to maintain their pass rush success, an opportunity may be there for Barr to chase down QBs more often.
During OTAs and minicamp, Barr has been working on some of the details of rushing on the defensive line.
“We are trying to get him where he is more comfortable rushing against linemen, that was part of our plan this spring,” head coach Mike Zimmer said on Thursday.
Barr has 10.5 sacks during his career, many of which have come when rushing up the middle from the linebacker position.
“I hadn’t really worked on it my first four years here,” Barr told the Star Tribune. “Now having the time to work on it, it’s beneficial. I’ve still got a long way to go. It’s not as easy as it looks watching Everson [Griffen] do it.”
Last year Barr chased after quarterbacks on 11.0 percent of his total snaps, according to Pro Football Focus — a number that has dropped from 14.6 percent in his rookie year.
“There are certain things I feel like I understand now, being here five years,” Barr said. “Stuff I’ve done a thousand times now, where I feel they trust me to go do some other stuff. Being with the D-line for five to 10 minutes a day may not seem like a lot, but it adds up.”
After the draft, Zimmer mentioned wanting to have more of a rotation on the defensive line. However, the Vikings did not make efforts to add any edge rushers in free agency.
Will we see Barr become part of the D-line rotation?
His OTA and camp reps are one indicator. The Vikings’ interesting Mychal Kendricks also points to that possibility. KSTP-TV’s Darren Wolfson reported the Vikings’ pitch to Kendricks included more of a role than just the No. 3 linebacker, which could indicate they were considering him and Barr on the field at the same time. Kendricks ultimately signed with the Browns.
Barr’s past success as a rusher points toward more usage as a good idea. In 115 pass rush snaps, PFF credited him with one sack, five QB hits, eight hurries and the third best pass rush grade of any inside linebacker.
In 2016, he had similar results, with two sacks, five QB hits and 12 hurries. PFF graded him as the fifth best pass-rushing interior linebacker, only behind Bobby Wagner, Dont’a Hightower, Thomas Davis and Ryan Shazier.
Last season Barr was used more often off the edge as a rusher than in 2016. He pursued QBs from the outside linebacker spot 65 times and inside linebacker 50 times.
Going back to when he was drafted by the Vikings, many saw Barr as a pass rusher. His NFL.com Draft Profile Bottom Line starts with this sentence: “A highly disruptive, athletic specimen with the pass-rush potential to effortlessly emerge as a double-digit sack producer.”
Barr wouldn’t have to become a rotational pass rusher only. In 2017, he bounced back from a down year in 2016 to help the Vikings become the No. 1 team at shutting down opposing running backs in the passing game, according to Football Outsiders and he was only graded negatively by PFF in two regular season games in coverage.
A pass-rushing role could look more like that of Arizona linebacker Haason Reddick, who had 193 pass rush snaps off the edge and 23 from inside.
Sending Barr after the quarterback at a higher rate would put pressure on Eric Kendricks as the Vikings play around 70% nickel packages, but many teams (including New England) have put their focus on shutting down the pass, even if it means giving up more in the run game. The Vikings could consider using dime packages in key situations or have Ben Gedeon mix in on early downs.
Zimmer has been known for finding ways to maximize the talents of defensive players a la moving Linval Joseph to nose tackle and Captain Munnerlyn to slot corner. We might see some creativity with Barr in 2018, whether that means rushing up the middle more or sending him off the edge with regularity.
Getting Barr even more involved in the rush could add a new wrinkle to the league’s No. 1 defense.