Every season good players are overlooked or undervalued across the NFL. As we approach the regular season, Brandon Thorn will look at players who are not getting the appropriate level of attention from big media – or even smaller entities – and put them under the microscope to evaluate their skills and traits and see what others might not. Next up is Broncos LB Shaq Barrett.
The offensive line is typically the most forgotten position group in terms of publicity, and it is also my favorite position group in football, so naturally much of my focus will be placed on them moving forward; increasing awareness for the big men up front will be an important goal for me with this series. I do, however, have experience evaluating most positions, and a diverse set of players and positions will be incorporated as this idea continues to grow.
I will focus on 10 core traits for each position, with an emphasis on the positive traits shown by the player; I want to look at what players can do. In order for traits to be deemed positive they will need to be consistently shown throughout film study, not just during one game.
For this series, a minimum of six games – viewed and assessed in their entirety – will serve as a basis for each evaluation. Oftentimes I study more than six, as I prefer to gather as much information as I possibly can. An example of the broad context I aim to gather would involve evaluating multiple away games, home games, games against high and low level competition, bad weather, rivalry games, and games where the player is dealing with or coming off an injury. Personally, I believe, the more context built into my evaluation, the better the results.
Barrett’s path is one of relative obscurity, but great resolve. He started his college career at Nebraska Omaha, an NCAA Division II school, before transferring to Colorado State when Nebraska Omaha terminated its football program. During his time at Colorado State, Barrett primarily played defensive end, carving out a highly decorated career for himself accumulating 35 college starts with 32.5 tackles for loss, 18 sacks, and earned Mountain West Defensive Player of the Year as a senior in 2013.
Entering the NFL Draft and being evaluated as a pro player presented some obstacles, namely with his body type and measurables, both of which were lacking.
Barrett won a high school state championship in wrestling at 215 pounds, but entered the NFL Draft as a 6’1” 260-pound defensive end that needed to reinvent his body composition in order to maximize his ability on the field. Through a new diet regimen that saw him cut out foods like spaghetti as well as sugar, Barrett reinvented himself during his rookie season.
Fast-forward to 2016 and he is arguably the best bargain in the entire NFL, playing on a rookie deal that is paying him just $525k a year after notching six starts with 41 tackles, 5.5 sacks, and 4 forced fumbles as a key role player on the No. 1 overall defense in the NFL.
Barrett was a rotational player for the Super Bowl winning Denver Broncos in 2015, often paired with 2015 rookie first-round pick Shane Ray as the duo to replace DeMarcus Ware and Von Miller periodically throughout games. Once Ware went down with a back injury in Week 5 against the Raiders, Barrett took over as the primary ROLB. Barrett played both the ROLB and LOLB positions in defensive coordinator Wade Phillips’ 3-4 Under scheme that is based on a one-gap responsibility up front. This allows for all players in the front seven to play with an attacking style, something that suits Barrett very well.
Barrett isn’t a player who wins with an elite get-off that will stress the offensive tackle’s set – although he does that too with outstanding snap timing – but rather through refined technique with his hands, timing with his pass rush moves, balance, coordination, and a non-stop motor.
He plays like an undrafted free agent, and that’s a good thing.
Barrett also made an impact on special teams, as with this play from his first career regular season game.
Context: Week 1 at home against the Baltimore Ravens. It is the 3rd quarter with 12:37 on the clock, and the Broncos are down 13-9. The Broncos are receiving a punt from the Ravens, and Barrett has a blocking assignment.
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Barrett releases out of his base alignment to get downfield in preparation to block for the returner and unleashes a vicious hit on a pursuing defender. This sort of play sparks the team and helps generate a rally. Losing in the 3rd quarter this initiated a turning point for Denver, and is an impressive display of effort and physicality.
Context: We saw Barrett make an impact on the punt return team; now let’s take a look at him on the punt team. It’s Week 2 vs. the Kansas City Chiefs, the game is in the 2nd quarter with 15:00 on the clock, and the score is 0-0. Barrett is aligned on the LOS to the far right as a blocker. He releases downfield in pursuit of the returner.
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Barrett’s contributions to special teams are a large part of what makes him so valuable to the Broncos. Having a guy who plays meaningful snaps on defense that also plays on nearly all special teams is a commodity many teams lack, especially given Barrett’s salary. Barrett’s presence was felt in this rivalry game first on special teams by forcing a fumble, and it helped provide a spark for the team on the road in Arrowhead Stadium, a hostile environment.
Context: Week 16 at home against the Cincinnati Bengals in a must-win game for the Broncos. It is the 1st quarter and Denver is punting, attempting to pin Cincinnati deep in its own territory.
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Context: Week 1 vs. the Ravens, it’s the 4th quarter with 1:22 on the clock and Denver is up 19-13. The Ravens have the ball on the Broncos’ 47-yard line and it is 1st and 10. This is the seventh play of the drive.
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Barrett displays impressive ability to set up the blocker here using good burst up the field to get the blocker’s hips opened up, which creates an opening for the inside counter.
The mobility in Barrett’s ankles and hips to obtain a low center of gravity (COG) allow him to generate very good lateral explosion after his plant. The hand usage to capture the tackle’s left arm and rip through was the cherry on top, and an overall excellent display of nuance and technique.
Forcing a hold while still generating pressure on the quarterback was a by-product of the aforementioned traits on display – nice job by Barrett to make an impact at a critical moment in the game.
Being able to have four quality rushers who were interchangeable was a big reason for Denver’s defensive success in 2015, and a luxury most teams do not possess.
Context: Week 5 on the road vs. the Oakland Raiders. It’s 2nd and 10 in the 3rd quarter with 6:23 left on the clock. Oakland has the ball on its own 20-yard line and Denver is up 9-7. Barrett is aligned as a wide 9 technique with the defense in its base 3-4 front. Lined up across from Barrett is the Raiders swing-tackle and sixth offensive lineman, Khalif Barnes.
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Barrett quickly keys and diagnoses the play, gauges the blocker opening up to him for a base block, and works around the block using coordination, mobility, and hand usage.
Timing the use of the hands and feet for a pass rusher is one of the most difficult, refined aspects of playing the position and defeating blocks. It typically requires diligent work at perfecting the technique, and mastering one’s own body. This play is a testament to that for Barrett, especially given that up until this point he had played sparingly. After dissecting the nuances of this play it becomes clear that his work in practice is purposeful and intentional.
Barrett does a good job applying hand placement to clear his chest and stack tight ends to set a strong edge in the run game as well.
Context: Week 6 against the Cleveland Browns. It’s the 4th quarter with 11:10 on the clock, Denver is up 16-9. The Browns have the ball on Denver’s 18-yard line and it’s 1st and 10. This is Barrett’s first career start.
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Setting the edge in the run game for an outside linebacker requires a baseline of play strength, hand usage, and mental processing to decipher the blocking scheme quickly. The strongest, most athletic guy on the field can get reach blocked if he’s slow to diagnose, or if his hand technique and understanding of leverage is subpar.
Barrett recognizes that the TE lined up across from him is attempting to execute a reach block just a tad late, but knows that he must hold the edge to force the runner inside to his help. In accomplishing this task, Barrett displays good understanding of leverage and how to overcome a good jump by the tight end using his hands, and maintaining a strong base during lateral movement. This allows him to turn the table on the tight end in time to hold the edge. Once he takes care of his primary responsibility he is able to use the tight end’s momentum against himself, work back inside, and make the tackle for no gain.
Barrett lined up across from Joe Thomas – possibly the best offensive tackle in the game – for most of his first career start, and occasionally moved to the left side of the defense and faced right tackle Mitchell Schwartz, so the level of competition was extremely high.
This context is important to consider when studying the tape, and it is also an outstanding way to see where Barrett needs to improve: when the opponent is among the elite in the NFL, flaws are exposed quickly. Focusing on these is not meant to knock Barrett, but to identify some areas to improve upon in order to take his game to the next level – everyone can always work on their game.
Context: Week 6, it is the 1st quarter with the Browns facing a 4th and 5 on the Broncos’ 32-yard line. The score is 0-0. Barrett is at the right outside linebacker spot in a wide 9 technique across from Browns LT Joe Thomas. The offense is in 11 personnel, with the quarterback in shotgun.
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This was a crucial moment early in the game, and one where Barrett has a chance to make an impact as a pass rusher.
Barrett’s pass rush game is heavily predicated on getting a good jump off the snap, and here he is late out of his stance, hindering his chances for success. Thomas easily beats him to the spot, and has the inside covered. This leaves Barrett with one option: convert his speed to power, and into a bull-rush.
Granted, Thomas has an exceptional base and hand placement here, but Barrett, for his part, fails to generate any explosion from the ground through his hips or hands into the blocker. He is quickly halted, and an area of improvement is highlighted.
Converting speed to power is a key component for any speed rusher to develop in order to take his game to elite status. Barrett’s teammate – Super Bowl 50 MVP – Von Miller is a testament to this. Once an offensive lineman has to be aware of a rusher winning the corner and be alert to the possibility of the defender running through him is when things can tilt profoundly in the rusher’s favor. It can leave the offensive lineman constantly questioning and wondering where the rusher is going to go and what he is going to do next.
Barrett isn’t there yet, but that’s OK, as converting speed to power can be developed through timing, an understanding of angles, leverage, and an increase in posterior strength. A critical factor in being able to progress to converting speed to power successfully is based in ankle and hip mobility, because no matter how much you understand angles and leverage, if you cannot achieve proper ankle and hip flexion it becomes a moot point. Barrett has enough mobility, so his chances of growing this skill are available.
Context: Divisional Playoffs vs. the Pittsburgh Steelers. It’s the 3rd quarter with 14 seconds left on the clock. The Steelers have the ball on the Broncos 24-yard line and it’s 1st and 10. The score is 13-12, Pittsburgh. Barrett is squared off against Steelers right tackle Marcus Gilbert.
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Barrett takes advantage of the blocker’s pass-blocking miscue by attacking and initiating contact at the perfect time, utilizing a shoulder dip and excellent hand placement to unlock the blocker’s leverage point. Along with the technical aspects of this play, Barrett’s lower half mobility shows up as a major benefit to his pass-rushing prowess yet again.
This play was one of the most significant plays in the entire game. Pittsburgh was on the doorstep of increasing its one-point lead and not only did Barrett notch a sack, he also drew a 15-yard facemask penalty on Gilbert. This effectively took Pittsburgh out of striking distance; the Steelers couldn’t recover and wound up punting.
Context: AFC Championship Game vs. the New England Patriots. It’s the 4th quarter with 54 seconds left, and the Broncos are up 20-12. New England has the ball on Denver’s 10-yard line and are facing 1st and 10. Barrett is in a two-point stance across from right tackle Marcus Cannon in a wide 9 technique.
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Barrett’s snap timing was outstanding on this play, and the right tackle’s set was too stressed to recover from. Barrett dips his shoulder, rips underneath the blocker, and executes a sharp turn around the corner to hurry quarterback Tom Brady’s release, forcing an incompletion.
This is the perfect example of what made the 2015 Broncos defense an all-time great unit: They were able to substitute elite-level players such as Miller and Ware without a major dropoff. Late in a matchup that determined a trip to Super Bowl 50 and relying on a backup edge rusher tells you how much Barrett was trusted by Phillips, and rightfully so.
According to Spotrac.com, there are 157 outside linebackers currently listed under contract in the NFL, and Barrett’s average annual salary ranks 153rd. It can be argued that there is no better bargain on another NFL roster in 2016.
Barrett isn’t an elite athlete off the edge or in space, but he is a well-rounded player with good play strength who can consistently set the edge against the run, quickly diagnose blocking schemes, and affect the quarterback off the edge using swipe, rip, and dip moves. Barrett demonstrates the ability to play the pass as a zone defender in the curl/flats, but will struggle staying in-phase with athletic tight ends down field. He displays very good competitive toughness throughout games, consistently playing with a high motor, toughness, and physicality. Where Barrett needs the most improvement on the field is in his ability to convert speed to power more consistently, developing his pass rush plan, and honing the timing of his hand usage as a pass-rusher. If he can expand his toolbox as a pass-rusher with a couple secondary moves to counter inside there is no reason to not expect a player who can get 7-10 sacks a season as a full-time starter.
Follow Brandon on Twitter @VeteranScout. Read more of his work here, including his look at the wonder that is Joe Thomas, an explanation of why Doug Free is underrated, and his piece on Kansas City Chief center Mitch Morse here.
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All film courtesy of NFL GamePass.