The 2017 NFL Draft will feature many edge rushing prospects that have the potential to be elite players in the NFL. Jon Ledyard previously examined why University of Tennessee prospect Derek Barnett might not thrive on the edge. But can he kick inside and pressure the quarterback?
On Monday I wrote about the limitations of Tennessee defensive end Derek Barnett as he seeks an elite grade as a top pass rusher in the 2017 class. While it is true that Barnett lacks the athleticism, flexibility, and quick-twitch capabilities to be a top-tier edge rusher, I still believe he can make an impact on passing downs with his interior presence.
If you are looking for the tape where Barnett had the most consistent success as a pass rusher, pop in Tennessee vs. Oklahoma in just the second week of the college football season. Barnett exploded for 15 tackles and a sack, doing a significant amount of damage in just a handful of snaps as a 3 technique, especially on passing downs. Athleticism still matters for interior pass rushers, but hand usage, power, leverage, and technique are of more significant value inside, and Barnett flashes the ability to utilize each of these traits in his dismantling of Oklahoma left guard Jonathan Alvarez.
Strength and Power
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The first play shows Barnett as a 3 technique on Alvarez’s outside shoulder. Barnett initiates the contact with a two-handed punch to the guard’s chest, leveraging the A gap despite his pad level being a bit high. Keeping his eye-level fixed on the backfield, Barnett finds the football and discards Alvarez to help haul down Samaje Perine.
Alvarez is 6-3, 300 pounds, so for Barnett to be able to physically displace the guard that quickly shows the sheer power he possesses. That strength manifests itself in more elaborate pass rush moves as well, which Barnett tends to rely on more when aligned as a 3 technique, rather than on the edge. The defensive end flashed a powerful arm swat to club down Alvarez’s punch on this pressure, even managing to twist and get skinny through the gap to flush the pocket.
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Barnett’s upper body strength is impressive, but when he plays with leverage and leg drive, the power in his lower half can be just as eye-popping. Many think of a rip move as simply an upper body maneuver, but driving your legs through contact is crucial, something Barnett does very well on this play.
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In the play above, Oklahoma quarterback Baker Mayfield’s quick release to hit the slant route keeps Barnett from getting home, but the pass rusher still succeeds in getting on Alvarez’s edge and rapidly walking the lineman back into his quarterback. Interior pass rush is often about being disruptive, and while Barnett may not be explosive enough to become a consistent finisher, this small sample of snaps offers hope that the junior can still be impactful despite his limitations.
Converting speed-to-power is a vital part of a full pass-rush repertoire, and if Barnett can drop his pad level a bit and improve his burst off the line, this part of his game can make significant progress. This play highlights one of his better first steps, followed by a violent shove as the crasher on a stunt designed to open up a rush lane for teammate Corey Vereen looping through the A gap.
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Alvarez is no match for Barnett’s power, losing his balance instantly and allowing the defender to flush the pocket once again.
The last move we’ll look at by Barnett is a swim move, a critical arrow for any interior pass rusher to have in his quiver. In 12 snaps as a 3 technique, 10 of which came on passing plays, Barnett hit an arm-over twice, quickly working free on both attempts.
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While the move certainly requires refined physical skill, Barnett’s football mind aids him here as well, recognizing that Alvarez’s over-eager desire to land the first blow often left the lunging guard susceptible to getting swam. Barnett’s mental savvy aids him in consistently taking the best route to the quarterback based on what pass rush moves he knows his opponent is susceptible to on any given snap.
As was discussed in the piece published Monday, the level of competition does matter, and Alvarez making his second collegiate start at left guard certainly doesn’t represent an NFL-caliber opponent. However, scouts and analysts want to see transcendent college players annihilate inferior competition, and Barnett handily wins all 12 snaps against Alvarez, several in embarrassing fashion. Would I like to see more reps of Barnett as an interior pass rusher, against better offensive linemen? Absolutely, but Tennessee used him extremely sparingly at a spot that may hold his best chance at NFL success on passing downs. I won’t jump to any major conclusions based on a 12-play sample, but the overwhelming dominance by Barnett at a position where he has spent very little time certainly warrants attention moving forward.
Having said that, I do not think Barnett is explosive enough to beat many guards with quickness, and he will likely struggle to finish in space against more athletic quarterbacks, as several of the above plays demonstrate quite clearly. Nevertheless, to see rips, swims, clubs, and bull rushes over a 12-snap sample is highly encouraging, suggesting that Barnett has the technique, refinement, and power to succeed as an interior rusher with more opportunity and experience. As such, interior rusher is the position that gives him his best chance for three-down success in the NFL, where Barnett will need to be more than just an excellent run defender to live up to the hype currently surrounding his name.