The 2017 NFL Draft will feature many edge rushing prospects that have the potential to be elite players in the NFL. However, one name often mentioned might have trouble reaching that elite level. Jon Ledyard breaks down University of Tennessee prospect Derek Barnett and how his cornering ability leaves something to be desired.
Dan Hatman recently wrote an outstanding glossary piece on the art of cornering, which aptly described the way that many of the elite edge rushers win in the game of football today. Physicality and power will always have a place in a pass rusher’s repertoire, but athleticism and flexibility have become a key measuring stick for the premier edge defenders in the game today. Von Miller, Justin Houston, DeMarcus Ware, Ezekiel Ansah, Khalil Mack, and even J.J. Watt all have that unique ability to bend the edge and flatten quickly to the passer, showing elite-level flexion and quickness around an opposing offensive tackle’s outside hip.
There are several pass rushers in the 2017 class who show that elite cornering ability as well. Texas A&M’s Myles Garrett is an excellent athlete with some impressive lower body flexibility, especially considering how long his frame is. Tim Williams excels at winning the edge, while Carl Lawson combines a high-quality burst with strong hand usage and just enough hip wiggle to corner at a high level as well. However, one pass rusher who is often mentioned in the same breath as these exciting prospects, but perhaps shouldn’t be, is Tennessee’s Derek Barnett, a thickly built defensive end entering his true junior season this fall.
Before we get to the tape and start evaluating Barnett’s skill set, let’s examine his resumé. The third-year defender has an awards list of accomplishments longer than Le’Raven Clark’s arms. That recognition comes largely due to the impressive production that Barnett has posted during his two collegiate seasons, starting 23 of a possible 26 games and performing at a consistently high level. In 2014, Barnett had 72 tackles, 20.5 tackles for loss and ten sacks as a true freshman. Last season was more of the same, as the 6-3, 265-pound defensive end recorded 69 tackles, 12.5 tackles for loss, and ten sacks in 13 games.
So with outstanding production and SEC experience for a 20 year-old athlete, Barnett is instantly one of the top prospects on paper at his position in the 2017 class. I went to the tape to see how his statistical output was achieved. It didn’t take long to note how impressive Barnett is as a run defender, showing the strength and awareness to excel at the point of attack. He understands proper positioning and leverage, setting the edge with good arm extension and active feet to continue working to the boundary as a force defender. At some point during the coming months, I’ll write more in-depth about Barnett’s prowess as a run defender, because it is an impressive aspect of his skill set that deserves recognition. But today we’re looking at how he performs as a pass rusher, focusing chiefly on his cornering ability.
Too often Barnett struggles to turn the edge on his path to the quarterback, showing tight hips and a lack of fluidity in his lower half. Here are a few examples:
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Elite edge rushers possess the ability to drop their hips at the top of the arc, dipping underneath the opposing tackle’s punch to trim the corner to the quarterback. Barnett struggles to drop his weight on this play, no doubt resulting from a lack of flexibility from the waist down. He does a good job keeping his shoulders square during his initial strides upfield, but the burst and explosive movement to clear the edge cleanly just isn’t quite there. Because of this, his arc is too wide, resulting in Barnett simply being run upfield and out of the action.
Even from a two-point stance, the results are pretty similar.
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Early in this rep, Barnett recognizes he won’t win the edge, so he opts to counter with a spin back inside. The idea is great, but the execution too methodical and representative of his limited agility and fluidity when compared to other edge rushers in the 2017 draft-eligible class.
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Flexibility manifests itself in several ways, one of which is stride length. As the above play shows, Barnett’s strides simply do not cover a lot of ground after his initial first step, which often allows opposing offensive tackles to reach their landmark with ease, setting up to defend the edge before the junior defender can arrive. That’s an issue he may not be able to fix moving forward, which could limit his effectiveness off the edge.
The level of competition matters when evaluating prospects too, so it needs to be noted that while Florida left tackle David Sharpe has a promising future at the position, the heavy-footed sophomore was making the 4th collegiate start of his life, and just his second against an SEC foe. Neither Sharpe nor FCS transfer and starting Gators right tackle Mason Halter are great athletes or particularly strong competition for Barnett, yet the Vols’ defensive end struggled to take advantage of what should have been ideal matchups for him on several occasions, perhaps evidenced on this play more than any other.
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Sharpe’s lumbering movements barely interfere with Barnett’s efforts to get up the arc to the passer, yet you still see how much the pass rusher struggles to get his hips around and finish. There is a clear lack of flexibility here despite an extremely advantageous situation, exhibiting a weakness that should be concerning to NFL scouts.
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Again Barnett attempts to win the edge by bending around the left tackle’s outside hip, but he just doesn’t quite have the required ankle flexion, and wipes out despite just minimal contact.
I went through Barnett’s 2015 tape and watched all ten of his sacks. Four were completely unblocked, one came after recovering from a running back’s cut block, and yet another came while pursuing a scrambling quarterback late during a broken down play. Just four of Barnett’s ten sacks were due to winning the edge, and I would venture to say that on all four occasions, the opposing offensive tackle was not close to providing the Tennessee defender with a formidable matchup. Twice Barnett raced by Kentucky’s right tackle unscathed for sacks (one of which came against a freshman backup right guard forced into the game at tackle), while adding another tally around Halter late in the game against Florida. Barnett’s best sack of the season came on a shoulder dip against Northwestern’s right tackle in the Outback Bowl at the end of the season. Production is production at the college level, but it won’t all translate when Barnett makes the transition to the NFL in the next year or two, so examining the details of his output is crucial to projecting his long-term success as a pass rusher.
The best chance Barnett has to become better at cornering is to re-make his body. A current examination of his frame reveals a player that could probably stand to drop some weight and seek to become more explosive in his movements. At this point in the developmental process however, a player’s body typically is what it is. You don’t often see prospects take significant athletic strides once they hit their 20s. Cutting a few pounds could be beneficial for Barnett, but I doubt the difference is substantial enough to impact his game on a large scale.
Now, not every edge rusher needs to be elite at cornering to be successful in the NFL, although the best ones typically are. Everson Griffen is a good example of a productive NFL edge who has mastered technique, hand usage, and speed-to-power conversions to carve out an impressive career at the pro level. Barnett’s lack of burst and quickness off the ball may always limit his ceiling as a pass rusher, but he has the size and strength to win one-on-one matchups with sheer power and physicality if he can improve technically.
This certainly doesn’t disqualify Barnett as a prospect, but merely serves to explain why he shouldn’t be included with the top-tier pass rushers in an exciting class. I still think Barnett is a quality prospect who can start at the next level and provide a 4-3 front with a balanced skill set up front – but expecting him to be the lead pass rusher for an NFL team is a bit too ambitious. Barnett’s best chance to achieve success getting after the quarterback at the next level is to work diligently as a power rusher, utilizing his hands to re-position offensive linemen, moving through them rather than around them. I’ll have more on this in the coming days, as I look at what Barnett can do to compensate for his lack of elite athleticism and still provide translatable skills as a pass rusher to an NFL team.