Vikings linebacker Anthony Barr is a soon-to-be free agent the Jets are reportedly interested in signing.
Since that rumor broke on Friday, something interesting has happened. People have been projecting Barr as the solution to the team’s pass rushing needs even though his entire five year career in Minnesota has been composed of him playing a do-it-all linebacker role.
Barr has only 13.5 sacks in 5 NFL seasons. Yes, a number of analysts projected him as an edge rusher when he was a Draft prospects. But it did seem a bit odd to me that the first thought people had is for Barr to get big money and immediately take on a role he has never played in the NFL.
I think some of this has to do with the outdated way the media categorizes defensive systems. Adam Gase told the press a few weeks ago that the Jets are going to have a “3-4” base defense so people are trying to project where the current personnel would fit that scheme. One might slide Barr into an outside linebacker edge role while Avery Williamson and Darron Lee would play inside.
But in today’s NFL, labeling a defense 4-3 or 3-4 is a largely archaic device that doesn’t actually tell us much about the system.
To get a true understanding of a system in today’s league, you need to study how it operates and learn the roles players are asked to fill.
Gregg Williams’ defense in Cleveland had a role for a do-it-all linebacker like Barr. So it seems a tad strange to assume the Jets’ first move would be to change Barr’s role so drastically when they can put him into a role similar to the one he has had throughout his career.
Is it possible the Jets will give Barr big money to become a pure pass rusher? Sure, but I think it would be an unlikely move for a few reasons.
- A pass rusher is the most valuable commodity a defense can have. This entire premise is based on the assumption the Vikings were sitting on an elite edge rusher for 5 years and either didn’t realize it or decided to disregard it. They saw him work every day, and it never occurred to them to try him out as a pass rusher? I guess it’s possible. Sometimes teams do mess up. But you’re asking me to believe the most likely scenario is that the Vikings missed this when they had a half decade to figure it out?
- Barr is looking at a nice free agent contract for his work as a traditional linebacker. When you sign a free agent you think could thrive in a role change, they tend to not cost much money because of the risk involved with asking a player to do something he hasn’t done before. That risk is priced into the deal. You typically don’t pay the sticker price on a pure projection. Perhaps the Jets are so desperate for edge help and so confident in their projection that they’re willing to pay Barr big money to take on new responsibilities. It certainly would be an unusual move, though.
- Again the player Barr has been in the NFL has a fit in the Gregg Williams defense.
The counter argument I have heard the most is that Barr’s relative production as a pass rusher has been excellent. His raw numbers only look bad because of how little he has blitzed. His rate of pressures per blitz is percentages are terrific.
So I took a look at all 13.5 sacks he has delivered in the NFL. Was this truly a budding edge rusher who just needs a better opportunity to shine?
If that is the case, it certainly was not evident from what I watch. In his entire 5 year NFL career, I could not find a single instance where Barr lined up at an edge and got a sack after beating a tackle one on one. That’s a pretty amazing stat for a guy people think could get a big money deal as an edge rusher.
In those 13.5 sacks, I could only find a pair of instances where he even got off a block to get a sack.
I saw two sacks that came because he beat the block of a running back and two others from when he actually dropped into coverage and tackled a scrambling quarterback short of the line of scrimmage. The rest of his sacks came on stunts, loops, and busted blocking assignments that left him as a free runner.
Even if you are bullish on Barr as a pass rusher, you’d have to admit it is pretty risky to expect a guy with no sacks in 5 years in a true edge rushing role to become an impact rush linebacker. It’s possible, but typically you’d like some proof first...like a single sack in 5 years where he beat a tackle’s block.
This is where my take becomes nuanced because I do think Barr would have a role to play as a pass rusher if he signs with the Jets. I haven’t been arguing against him helping the pass rush. I’m just not sure I see the fit as a full-time, number one, go-to, super-duper pass rusher.
One of Barr’s best attributes is speed, and it served him well when he blitzed in Minnesota.
Take this play.
The Lions think they have it picked up.
Barr sneaks off to get away from their alignment and loops around the outside of the protection.
The result for Barr is splitting a sack with Everson Griffen.
That’s a tremendous amount of ground to cover in such a short period of time. It’s great to run to unoccupied areas, but it isn’t helpful unless the defender is fast enough to close out on the quarterback before the pass is made.
Gregg Williams certainly has a spot for a blitzing linebacker. He had two players, Jamie Collins and Joe Schobert were in the top ten in pass rushing snaps for off ball linebackers in 2018.
The Williams defense is all about creating busted assignments up front that a blitzing linebacker can clean up.
A fast guy who gets through these busts quickly can end a play before it starts.
With a steadier diet of blitzes, I wouldn’t be surprised to see Barr help the Jets’ pass rush and put up some better sack totals than he did in Minnesota.
I’m just not sure I would expect him to be the foundational pass rusher around whom the defense is built. My guess is that he would stay in that do-it-all role.
Williams’ blitzing linebackers were still dropping into coverage around 78% of the time. Considering the fact PFF charged Barr with just 207 yards allowed in coverage on 353 cover snaps (0.59 yards allowed per snap average tied for second best among linebackers), that might not be such a bad thing for the Jets if they sign him. In fact, I would guess it’s part of the reason.