The 2017 season has been a rollercoaster for the Philadelphia Eagles, but their well-oiled defensive line machine has enjoyed nothing but a ride to the top. With a firm rotation in place and every piece bringing significant value to the table, the Philadelphia pass rush has rapidly become one of the most feared in the NFL and with good reason. While Fletcher Cox and Brandon Graham may steal the headlines and the big numbers, there’s a story of preparing the next generation.
The Eagles drafted Tennessee edge-rusher Derek Barnett with their first round pick in this year’s draft in a move that was questioned by some and excited others. Breaking Reggie White’s collegiate sack record is something that was bound to draw attention and as the year has progressed, Barnett has quietly become one of the more efficient edge-rushers on the team.
Playing in 41% of the Eagles defensive snaps in his rookie year, Barnett totaled five sacks heading into the postseason. Against the Vikings, Barnett flashed with a huge strip sack on Case Keenum that was recovered by none other than Chris Long.
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Barnett’s effort arguably changed the course of the game. The Vikings were driving deep into enemy territory, lining up at the Eagles 16-yard line. Barnett flew off the edge and jarred the ball lose.
“I don’t even know what to say.” Barnett said after the game, lost for words as he responded to reporters. “It was a big play [and] I was there at the right time. As a defense, we were just happy to get off the field in that moment because they were trying to get seven. We were happy to get off the field.”
The connection between Barnett and Long has ripened as the year has progressed. A former Super Bowl winner himself, Long has been an instrumental figure in the development of the 21-year old.
“Yeah, he just keeps talking to him, mentoring him, teaching him how to be a professional, and how to play the defensive end spot.” Doug Pederson explained on Monday. “Chris is just a great mentor to Derek and some of the young players on our team. Derek continues to grow and seems to be making some big plays in these games here down the stretch. I do feel like Chris and his leadership ability has helped him do that.”
Long has had a big year himself and his presence against Minnesota was arguably just as important to the defenses success. Long had several big hurries on Case Keenum and a huge quarterback hit that forced an interception. The veteran’s relentless motor has rubbed on Barnett, who injects a never-ending engine of his own.
“I think that’s our responsibility.” Long said when asked about a responsibility to lead the team. Malcolm is an awesome humanitarian and a leader of men. I hope that I am, too. We are given so much, so it’s the least we can do. This city has been awesome, especially since I was a new guy. They have kind of adopted me. Everything I’ve done off the field they were a part of and really stepped up. You feel that real bond with the city, and at the end of the day this is the least we can do. Everyone always says to focus on football and be in your playbook, but I think Malcolm and others have proved that you can do positive things in the community and still be successful. The way Malcolm attacks things off the field is the same as how he plays. We’re just really lucky to be in this platform.”
The Eagles have one of the league’s most prolific pass-rushes for good reason. A healthy rotation and a blend of veterans and younger players who can learn all the tricks of the trade until it’s their time to sit on the Throne. The best part? This is only the first year in a long-term plan that’s designed to create stability and explosiveness across the board.
Mandatory Credit: Eric Hartline-USA TODAY Sports