*The Around The NFL crew will document the players we believe will be "Making the Leap" in 2015. This could be a player emerging from no-name status to a quality starter. Or it could mean an excellent player jumping to superstar status. *
Anthony Barr stood out by blending in. The Vikings linebacker was the rare rookie asked to perform a ton of different roles while never leaving the field, and he did them all at a solid starter level from Day 1.
Consider that Barr has only been playing defense for three seasons after transitioning from running back and wide receiver at UCLA. He's a player whose ceiling remains under construction, with the rare ability to win a game on a single play.
"At some point in time, I expect him to be one of the better linebackers in this league," Vikings coach Mike Zimmer said last year. "I don't know when that will be, but I expect it to be sometime."
Why Barr's time is now
- Barr reminds me a lot of New England's Jamie Collins, who made our top-five Making the Leap candidates a season ago. Barr blitzes up the middle well, rushes from the outside and provides solid pass coverage. He runs down plays from the backside. He gives a defensive coordinator a ton of options and doesn't need to come off the field. Barr missed 10 snaps all season before hurting his knee in Week 13, and eight of those missed snaps came in his debut.
- A lot of draft analysts scoffed at Barr getting taken No. 9 overall, comparing him to Aaron Maybin or Barkevious Mingo. Those comparisons missed Barr's versatility in pass coverage.
The Vikings asked Barr to drop back on 42.8 percent of his snaps, according to Pro Football Focus. We watched him cover running backs, tight ends and the occasional wide receiver. The reel below shows him making a big play in the red zone while covering Sammy Watkins, and then shows off his ability to cover screens:
These are the types of linebackers that NFL coaches crave in 2015, when five receivers could be targets on any play. Every down is a passing down.
- Barr closes fast. You can see it in the screen plays above. He also made a ton of tackles he had no business making in the running game because he pursued from the backside and never gave up on the play.
- One play that helped encapsulate Barr's season: He faked blitzing up the middle, peeled off to cover a running back and then made an outstanding open-field tackle behind the line of scrimmage.
- Vikings coaches have consistently lauded Barr's smarts, attention to detail and approach to being a professional. He already had the "green dot" on his helmet that communicated with the sideline in Week 4 last season, a nod to his maturity. That sets him apart from a lot of workout wonder types.
- Barr's spot on this list is also a show of respect for Zimmer. The former Bengals coordinator did wonders without other physical marvels in Cincinnati like Carlos Dunlap and Michael Johnson. Those guys didn't make nearly the impact that Barr did as a rookie.
Barr was far from perfect. His expected weakness in the running game occasionally showed up when he overpursued plays and missed a lot of tackles. Overall he proved to be a solid run defender because of his effort and speed to get past blockers, but he gave up some big plays. He also clearly needs to do better as an outside pass rusher, often getting swallowed up by physical left tackles like Trent Williams. Barr is more comfortable blitzing from surprising places than winning one-on-one battles. Barr also has to make up for some lost time this offseason because of his knee injury, althogh he's expected to be ready for camp.
The Vikings defensive line is loaded and should allow Barr to make plays, but strong-side linebacker in a 4-3 defense isn't always a glamour position. Barr isn't going to necessarily rack up the stats that get noticed. Like Collins, he will make his money by doing a little bit of everything and showing up with big plays.
Just look at Barr's stat line in only 12 games last year: 70 tackles, 4 sacks, 3 passes defensed, 3 fumble recoveries, and 2 forced fumbles. Pro Football Focus ranked Barr as a quality pass rusher and run defender, while holding his own in pass defense. He's the fantasy baseball player you draft because he helps in every category.
Sure, there is a risk we're picking Barr a year too early. But he was already an above-average starter as a rookie when all signs (body type, inexperience at the position) pointed to a steep learning curve. Barr is the type of player that probably wouldn't even fit in the NFL 20 years ago, but Zimmer is the perfect coach to maximize Barr's talents to line up all over the place. He shouldn't blend in much longer.
The latest Around The NFL Podcast discusses Greg Hardy's reduced suspension, and the guys debate which players are at 'The Crossroads.'