In what is now a long inhale before the smacking of pads fills the NovaCare Complex next month, anticipation builds. The Philadelphia Eagles have a roster that’s arguably even more dangerous on paper than the one that went on an incredible journey to Super Bowl 52 and excitement among fans is high. But there’s one player who will have to step up in a big way next year.
The Birds had a transitional offseason at defensive end. Chris Long retired after a stunning career, while Michael Bennett secured a payday elsewhere after proving to be an absolute force in midnight green.
Long played in 58% of defensive snaps last year and 48% in 2017. It’s not just the number of snaps played, either. Last year, Long ranked 27th among all defensive players in the NFL when it comes to QB pressures, according to Pro Football Focus. He also hit the quarterback on 3.3% of his snaps, the 9th highest number in the NFL, per IDP.
Bennett meanwhile, has the third-most QB pressures of any edge rusher since 2014. He had 37 last season, to go with 20 hits according to Pro Football Focus.
Bringing back Vinny Curry and drafting Shareef Miller helped negate the loss, and retaining Brandon Graham was pivotal, but it’s former first-round pick Derek Barnett who many will now look to for production.
In his rookie 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, scoring one touchdown in the process. 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.
The future looked bright for Barnett, who flashed plenty of explosiveness in his rookie year. But in 2018, his breakout took a step back. Barnett played in seven games before a torn rotator-cuff ended his season. He was able to record 17 tackles and 2.5 sacks in that time however, in almost half of the snaps (234). It was a big jump forward, but the expectation is that his development continues.
“I think the next step for a guy like Derek, he was playing at a very high level before he got hurt last year.” Jim Schwartz said during OTA’s. “Obviously wasn’t able to bounce back from that and finished the year on the IR. With him, it’s a matter of picking up where he left off.”
Currently still rehabbing from his injury, Barnett should be ready to hit the ground running come training camp. But after losing so much firepower on the outside, the weight on the shoulders of the former first-round selection will be higher than ever.
There have already been some minor concerns when it comes to his play and the fact that Barnett appears to flash that elite bend before burning out and disappearing deep into drives. This may be backed up by the fact he ranked just 46th in PFF’s pressure category as a rookie, before dropping 5 spots in his sophomore season. When he’s on, he’s on…but can he bring that same energy all game long?
Barnett is entering his third season in the NFL and at this point will be a fully-fledged starter, just as he was last year. Stunningly, he will be just 23-years old in June. With youth on his side and still room to grow, there is every reason to be excited about Barnett’s third year in the league, but it’s one that will come with pressure. Pressure to fill what is a gaping hole in production. Pressure to live up to the lofty ‘first-round’ expectations. Pressure to be the guy.
There’s a very good chance that Derek Barnett silences the doubters next year and breaks out in Pro Bowl fashion…and at that point, I think it’s safe to say everybody can look back and call the drafting of the young defensive end a true success.