EAGAN, Minn. — When Anthony Barr was forced to sit out three games with a hamstring injury for three weeks, he had time to assess his game.
“When you’re injured you get some time to look yourself in the mirror and figure out things you can do better and different ways you can help,” Barr said.
For the first time in his career, the Vikings’ 2014 first-round pick picked up multiple sacks. Barr has said he’s interested in more opportunities to rush the passer because it fits his skill set. The numbers back that up.
According to Pro Football Focus, he has 21 QB pressures in just 89 pass rush snaps this season — good for fourth best among traditional linebackers.
Over the last two weeks his usage has been noticeably different with 30 snaps between Week 14 and 15 on the defensive line. Barr had only lined up on the D-line 52 times in the other nine games (per PFF).
“I feel like we’ve been playing to my strengths the last few weeks, going forward, doing stuff like that, rushing the passer,” Barr said. “That was something we worked on pretty tough all offseason. Starting to see those things come to fruition a little bit and that’s a positive for myself and the team.”
Head coach Mike Zimmer has noticed that Barr has been more effective since he returned, especially when being used as a rusher.
“He’s played outstanding, really the last month or so, maybe a little longer,” Zimmer said. “Playing with great physicality, effort to the ball. He is doing a lot better in his pass rushing. I think there were some times the other day that he showed up quite a bit on it.”
While the Dolphins had great difficulty blocking him, Zimmer pointed out that some of the hidden value to Barr’s game is that opponents have to focus on him each week.
“A lot of times team always account for him,” Zimmer said. “You don’t want to say all the time, because certain play actions are designed to go certain ways. But drop back passing game, we’ve had several teams this year that make him the fifth rusher every time and if he doesn’t come, he doesn’t come.”
Earlier this year the Vikings’ defense struggled when opponents — especially the Rams — found ways to isolate Barr in coverage with wide receivers. Since then Zimmer has made tweaks and Barr has only given up 10 receptions on 13 attempts and zero touchdowns.
The Vikings’ head coach pointed out in an impromptu press conference to dispel a trade rumor involving Barr that the team’s versatility on defense was improved by Barr’s football IQ.
“He has a really good grasp on what we’re doing defensively,” Zimmer said. “He has a good grasp on what the offense is doing. He can communicate to the defensive line and the other linebackers and I think that helps a lot to be able to do the things we are trying to do.”
With Barr in the final year of his career, the team will face a decision on whether to either franchise tag him, negotiate a long-term deal or let him walk in free agency.
The salary cap is expected to rise once again, giving some flexibility to the cap-strapped Vikings. Still they will have to make decisions on whether to re-sign Sheldon Richardson or work on an extension for cornerback Trae Waynes.
“That will take care of itself when it gets here, for now we’re trying to get two more wins,” Barr said.
As far as his value, it would be higher as a dominating pass rusher than a pure inside linebacker. Top edge rushers routinely make upwards of $15 million per season whereas the Vikings signed fellow linebacker Eric Kendricks to a deal worth $10 million per year last offseason, which ranked within the top 10 at his position.
On Tuesday, Barr was named to his fourth Pro Bowl in five NFL seasons. He said that the team and players inside the Vikings locker room have a better view of what he’s brought to Minnesota than traditional stats like tackles and sacks would suggest.
“If you look at the stats and stats aren’t jumping out at you, then you assume [a player] isn’t playing well but I think our defense is different,” Barr said. “We’re a very unselfish group and we play together and a lot of the success we have is due to being unselfish. Some guys have better stats than others but at the end of the day we’re helping everyone be successful.”