The proliferation of the spread offense (and read-option) in football has led college and NFL defensive coordinators to covet multidimensional linebackers with exceptional athleticism and playmaking skills.
Ideally, edge players in hybrid 3-4/4-3 schemes would have the size and strength to set the edge against the run, while also possessing the speed, quickness and agility to wreak havoc as pass rushers from the corner. When I survey the college landscape for the prototypical outside linebacker in today's game, I believe UCLA's Anthony Barr stands above the rest.
Who's better, Jordan or Barr?
Measuring 6-foot-4, 248 pounds with speed reportedly in the 4.4-second range, Barr is an exceptional athlete with a natural feel for playmaking despite only one year of experience as a defender. He totaled 13 sacks and 21.5 tackles for loss in 2012, while adjusting to a move from H-back to outside linebacker on the fly. Most importantly, he flashed the kind of disruptive presence coaches and scouts covet.
With explosive athletic playmakers like Dion Jordan and Barkevious Mingo coming off the board within the first six selections of the 2013 NFL Draft, it's not a stretch to suggest Barr was a lock as a top-10 pick had he elected to forego his senior season. In fact, it is quite possible he would've been the first defender taken in the draft based on his impressive physical dimensions and disruptive potential.
I've been hearing a lot of buzz about Barr in the scouting community, so I looked at the All-22 coaches' footage from last season to break down Barr's game and see why scouts are so smitten by his potential. Here are my thoughts:
Barr arrived at UCLA ranked by many recruiting analysts as the top athlete in the 2010 class following a spectacular career at Loyola High School in Los Angeles. Although he failed to live up to the hype as a tight end in the Bruins' offense, he certainly displayed speed, burst and agility as an outside linebacker. Watching Barr work off the edges against the run or as a pass rusher, I've been impressed with his combination of balance, body control and burst. He shows exceptional closing quickness hunting down quarterbacks and runners from the backside. Most importantly, Barr is agile enough to weave through trash to make negative plays in the backfield -- a quality that could make him a star at the next level.
For a former offensive player with limited snaps on defense, Barr is an impressive run defender. He is stout at the point of attack, using size, strength and length to leverage blockers before disengaging and falling in on the play. While his technique is far from textbook, Barr's hand skills, aggressiveness and strength allow him to set a hard edge on the perimeter, enabling his teammates to make plays in pursuit. On runs away from his side, Barr flashes the speed and burst to track runners down from behind. He displays a relentless motor that produces negative plays off sheer effort.
Barr is a crafty rusher with a natural feel for getting to the quarterback. Although he lacks elite first-step quickness, he routinely wins with a "bend-and-burst" maneuver that allows him to turn the corner against offensive tackles. He will also use a spin move and a stutter-step to take advantage of blockers who overreact to his speed rush. Barr is certainly effective as a conventional rusher off the edge, but I believe he is most dangerous when used on blitzes from the second level. He displays superb timing and awareness shooting gaps from depth, and his athleticism makes him tough to block on the move.
Barr has the potential to become an excellent cover man on the perimeter. He is fast enough to run with tight ends and running backs down the seam, while also displaying the instincts and awareness to make quick reactions to balls thrown in the flat in zone coverage. Although his backpedal and turns/transitions are still a little rough, his overall athleticism, vision and reactions enable him to make bang-bang hits on pass catchers in his area. Of course, scouts will want to see better angles and drops.
For all the characteristics evaluators value in top prospects, playmaking ranks at the top. NFL coaches have an affinity for players with a track record of delivering big plays in key moments. Barr certainly fits the bill based on his 2012 resume as the Pac-12 sack leader, while also wreaking havoc against the run. His unbelievable knack for harassing quarterbacks and runners in the backfield alters the way opponents attack the Bruins' defense, which makes it easier for the defensive coordinator to hone in on offensive tendencies. Moreover, Barr's disruptive skills allow the defensive coordinator to dictate terms to the offense. Given the challenges of stopping the fast-paced offenses dominating college football, the presence of a game-changer like Barr takes the defense to another level.
Barr is a versatile three-down playmaker with the potential to impact the run or pass as an edge player. Although he must smooth out some of the rough spots in his game, there are few players capable of matching his disruptive potential on the collegiate level. If he continues to make strides in his development, he will enter the NFL viewed as a Julian Peterson-like playmaker with big-time potential.