As we look ahead to the 2018 NFL season, one player Eagles fans should be very excited about is defensive end, Derek Barnett. The man who broke Reggie White’s sack record at the University of Tennessee is expected to take a huge step entering his second season in the NFL. Although Barnett underwent a sports hernia surgery this offseason, he is already a full participant in Eagles camp. The 6’3, 260-pound pass rusher has the potential to develop into one of the true leaders on the stacked Eagles defensive line.
Coming out of the draft, the Nashville native was heralded as a transcendent defensive line talent, who had the ability to accumulate multiple double-digit sack seasons in the NFL. With powerful hands, Barnett is regarded as a technician by many scouts and executives around the NFL. He has exceptional footwork and lower body strength which allow him to get by opposing linemen with ease. In addition, Barnett is smart and tough, traits that Jim Schwartz loves in his defensive players.
Barnett’s physical ability and intangibles have already translated to the NFL game, leading him to have a superb rookie year with a limited role on the team last season. When taking a look back at his first season, we can identify many areas of the game in which Barnett excelled at. The 22-year-old showed flashes of being the franchise cornerstone at the edge rusher position opposing Brandon Graham on the terrifying Eagles defensive line for years to come.
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In the 2017-2018 season, Barnett played 41% of the Eagles defensive snaps (424 total), mainly due to the depth the Eagles had on their front seven. The former Vol was able to put up “21 total tackles, 1 forced fumble, 2 fumble recoveries, and one touchdown” . In addition, Barnett was able to make a significant impact as a pass rusher on second and third down situations, sacking the quarterback 5 times. Barnett produced at an exceptionally high level on a limited number of snaps. A solid first year was exactly the learning experience Barnett needed to grow both mentally and physically as a player. Practicing against the Eagles offensive line enabled Barnett to mature and become accustomed to going against top NFL talent.
After watching Derek practice daily, star defensive tackle Fletcher Cox stated,“‘He’ll be really, really good. Derek is one of those guys who shows up, works hard, and is not afraid to compete…His first year, you saw him go up against Jason Peters in training camp and he wasn’t missing a beat. That makes him better and was a big compliment to him. He wasn’t scared at all. He’ll be really good’” (2). This high praise from Cox is warranted, as Barnett is expected by his teammates to take the leap and become an elite edge rusher.
While his teammates have noticed how special Barnett really is, top NFL analysts also expect a big year from Barnett in 2018. Lance Zierlein predicts “with the Eagles releasing Vinny Curry this offseason, he should see a lot more playing time in 2018, even though Philadelphia still has good depth at the position. Barnett is more of a technician than speed rusher off the edge, so he ran into much more traffic than he was used to as he transitioned to battling NFL offensive tackles. Barnett has quick, strong hands and finds efficient paths to the quarterback. His season as an understudy likely gave him the experience he needed to help convert a higher percentage of his rushes into hurries and sacks” (3)
Zierlin’s predictions may very well come true. As the 260-pound pass rusher is more of a finesse and skill defender rather than a powerful behemoth, an entire season under his belt is exactly what he needs to make the complete transition to the NFL game. With the addition of Michael Bennett via trade, Barnett is more motivated than ever to fight for a starting role on the team.
It’s not just talent evaluators who saw plenty of promise in Barnett’s game. His defensive coordinator, Jim Schwartz, was more than impressed.
“Most players make a significant improvement from year one to year two.” Schwartz said of his defensive end last week. “I think it’s sort of one of the adages of the NFL. That’s where you see a significant improvement. He set that bar pretty high in his first year. Made a lot of big plays for us. Also gained a lot of experience dealing with the long season and not just four preseason games [and the regular season], but deep into the playoffs and things like that. He had some bumps and bruises just like everybody, and the experience of dealing with that stuff. But, yeah, I think he’s more seasoned now, little bit stronger now.
Obviously, he’s been through the ringer, knows what to expect. I think that’s a big part of young players too. When you’re a rookie, there is so much uncertainty, and after you do it once, it settles down.”
The battle for the starting right defensive end position will only make Barnett better and more exciting to watch this upcoming season. Although he will not get to play 80% of snaps like other top defensive ends do, he has already shown that he can make a significant impact under a limited snap count. With stars such as Brandom Graham and Fletcher Cox along the Eagles defensive line, Barnett is unlikely to face double teams, enabling him more opportunities to be productive. Barnett is the ultimate competitor, and his bursting potential makes him a serious breakout candidate in 2018.
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Mandatory Credit: James Lang-USA TODAY Sports