Picture yourself as a general manager putting together a big board for the upcoming draft. How do you rank players above others? What makes one player seemingly more valuable at the same position as another player? What do you prioritize in a player in deciding on their ranking?
Many scouts and evaluators will tell you they rank players by seeing how they look on tape. But the tape can be vague and show you multiple things, the two main ones being production, and potential. Production meaning how well a player performed, and potential being how translatable that production is to the next level. Both terms can look fuzzy to the unclear eye, as such is the case when watching film on Tennessee defensive end Derek Barnett.
The first thing anyone will tell you about Barnett is precisely his production, and how vast it was in his three years at Tennessee. In his 39 career games, he amassed 191 tackles, three forced fumbles, 52 tackles for loss, and 32 sacks, which broke Reggie White’s school record. Playing in the SEC, these numbers are hard to ignore, especially when you consider he’s still 20-years-old. So how did Barnett consistently produce at such a high level against great competition?
What he does well
Kind of like how a running back can wear down a defense late in a game after 20 four yard carries, Barnett actually plays a lot like this as a pass rusher. He could go multiple drives throughout the game with maybe a pressure or two, but be unable to finish and get to the quarterback. But, before the final whistle, like a running back who would eventually find a crease and take it to the house, Barnett always eventually breaks through.
Barnett’s most desirable asset is his impressive hip and ankle flexion for his density. At 6’3”, 260 pounds, he can dip and accelerate around the edge like a player 20 pounds lighter, but with that extra density, comes more natural force upon impact. This natural flexibility aided him in getting the high sack volume he achieved, because frankly, he really only won as a speed rusher running the arc.
In the above play, you see how Barnett was almost exclusively used at Tennessee, as a snap jumper, determined to win the edge at all costs. Very rarely was Barnett asked to do anything other than time the snap and get the tackle off his rhythm, and it typically worked at least once or twice a game.
Something else that stood out when watching Barnett is his understanding of angles. When plays would break down, a quarterback would break the pocket, or on the backside of a running play, Barnett would showcase a good understanding of the optimal path to the ball.
Barnett’s path to the quarterback changed in about every second of his pursuit on this play. Going through a mess of a pocket, his eyes are fixated on the quarterback, and he maneuvers through and around blockers on the way to a QB hit, forcing the incompletion. This focus and cerebral capability are impressive for a player who typically wins with such a small array of moves, while also proving to be a testament to his relentless motor.
What he needs to improve
We know Barnett produced at a high level in college, but how can that production translate to the NFL? Barnett’s biggest red flag is how stale and predictable he is as a pass rusher. As a snap jumper, he was only focused on turning the corner and bending around the edge. And when his jump wasn’t great, and the tackle could mirror correctly, Barnett would just be run out of the play as he showed little to no inside counter moves.
On this play, Barnett’s jump off the line wasn’t anything special, but he still had an advantage against the left tackle. Knowing his usual path to the quarterback, the tackle overextends his set and his backside is facing his own teammates by his third and fourth steps, which is a complete no-no for a tackle. The tackle gets away with this because Barnett is so determined to dip around him, with no consideration to use the tackle’s momentum against him to go back inside. Because of this, the tackle runs him out of the play.
Barnett’s one move is pretty effective, but NFL offensive tackles will eat him alive if his only plan of attack is to try and get the corner on them every time. Not only that, but teams will just chip him with a tight end off the formation and completely stunt him in his tracks. Barnett’s development of alternative pass rushing moves is imperative to his growth as a pro prospect.
Another glaring weakness of Barnett’s is his lack of athleticism. His timing of the snap is impressive and deserves to be recognized, but if his jump isn’t great, his make-up acceleration off the line is nothing to brag about. And in space, he looks sluggish.
Barnett played at about 260 pounds for his senior year at Tennessee, and on this play, it looked like he was carrying all 260 of those pounds in his legs. Barnett does not have quick feet, and cannot stop and start on a dime like someone with more twitch in his movement. Now as a pure pass rusher in college, playing in space didn’t matter as much, but the NFL is filled with the best athletes from college, and the offensive tackle position is played by better athletes every year. If your edges aren’t upper-tier athletes, they have to be extremely gifted technicians, with multiple ways of winning at the point of attack, and Barnett just isn’t that. We should get a better understanding of his athletic ability at the combine, but based on his tape, it doesn’t look like he’ll stand out there.
Making his case for the Bengals
I think Barnett in a Bengals uniform makes sense for a couple reasons. For one, he comes from a power five conference team and produced at an elite level. His production gradually increased as he progressed through his three years, and the fact that he’ll be 21 as a rookie is great for his long term potential. The other main reason he could land in Cincinnati is that Barnett’s ability to win around the edge would give the Bengals something they simply don’t have at the defensive end position. That might be all he can give the team at least for his first couple of years as a pro, but there is great value in that trait. The question is, how much value?
Because this class of edge rushers is very deep, and athletically, there are much more desirable pass rushers, I don’t think Barnett fits the bill as a top 10 player. His production on paper speaks like a first round lock, but his athletic limitations should be cause for concern. It should be stated that players like Barnett, who just seem to beat guys off pure talent alone, do become productive players in the league. But when the Bengals are on the board and only eight players have been selected, there will be guys with more upside than Barnett, which could very well make him slide toward the back half of the first round, and maybe even close to the Bengals’ second round pick, where he makes a lot more sense in terms of value.