Misused. Underutilized. Wrong role.
These were some of the words being used to describe Anthony Barr’s time in Minnesota when reports came out that he would be signing with the New York Jets. One day after those reports, he decided to turn back to Vikings and sign a long-term contract extension. His return is something Mike Zimmer wanted all along.
In a way, it’s astonishing that anyone would suggest that Barr was wrongly used by his head coach considering Barr made four Pro Bowls. But part of the narrative was shaped by Barr, who said multiple times he wanted to rush the passer more often, including saying at one point that he’s “better going forward than backward.”
It appeared the Jets were ready to fulfill his wish and make him a 3-4 edge-rushing outside linebacker.
Barr’s about-face may have simply been about his love for Minnesota. It wasn’t about the money — he reportedly took less to return. It’s hard not to wonder, however, if his new deal also includes a compromise in his future usage.
Zimmer has always looked at Barr as a dynamic outside linebacker, capable of a more expansive role that includes the entire package of coverage assignments, run stopping and blitzing.
“He’s smart as heck,” Zimmer said prior to the 2018 season. “I can tell him to do all kinds of different things, make all kinds of different checks and adjustments. He’s got great size, length and speed. He dictates the game in a lot of different ways that don’t show up on a stat sheet and to me that’s important.”
In a press conference later in the year, Zimmer expanded his comments. He said:
“We can change things pretty quickly but if we are changing that means two guys change, probably. He has a really good grasp on what we’re doing defensively. 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.”
But Barr has a point with his wish to chase quarterbacks. He’s proven that the pass rush elements of his game that made him a successful player at UCLA, where he posted 23.5 sacks in his final two years, can carry over to the NFL. Among linebackers with similar all-around roles, Barr ranked No. 1 in Pro Football Focus’s Pass Rush Productivity statistic, creating a QB pressure on 13.8 percent of pass rush attempts.
He did rush relatively often for his position, coming after the QB on 21.1 percent of total passing snaps, which ranked 13th among linebackers with at least 250 pass snaps.
New England star linebacker Dont’a Hightower is much higher on the list. He rushed on 42.7 percent of passing plays in 2018 — many times coming off the edge.
Last season Hightower had a nearly 50-50 split of snaps on the defensive line and as a box linebacker. To be exact, he was lined up on the D-line for 427 plays and in a traditional linebacker position on 486 plays.
These numbers are massively different from Barr, who only was used on the D-line 99 times compared to 646 plays from the linebacker position.
In the Super Bowl, Hightower was used on the D-line 29 times and in the box 23 times.
Here are three examples of the Patriots’ veteran linebacker being used in different spots based on the situation. On this first-and-10 play in the first quarter, he’s the middle linebacker.
On second-and-10, he rushes off the offense’s right edge
On third-and-3, Hightower comes from the left edge.
One similarity between the two backers is size. Many of the NFL’s linebackers are under 250 pounds but both Hightower and Barr weigh in around 260 pounds. They have the size to play an edge role and not get demolished in the run game and the quickness to drop back in coverage if needed.
Zimmer has talked about teams needing to “account” for Barr. Moving him to the edges more often might put even more emphasis on his spot for the opposing quarterback, similar to the way QBs get flustered by safety Harrison Smith’s moves between the box and deep safety.
In order to turn Barr into Hightower, the Vikings would have to make some other tweaks. If Everson Griffen remains on the team, he or Danielle Hunter might be bumped inside over the guard in certain situations, as the Patriots did with Trey Flowers.
Here is an example of that look against Seattle:
With Sheldon Richardson signing in Cleveland and little cap space to find a replacement, Zimmer might benefit from using his top rushers in clear passing situations.
It’s also interesting that Barr’s usage on the D-line did increase toward the end of the season.
In Weeks 1-13, he did not crack double digits in snaps on the D-line. But in the final four games, he was up front 10 times or more in three games, including 17 times in Week 14. Not all of those snaps were off the edge — some came in a “mug” look in which he lines up over the guard.
Last year we saw Zimmer make creative tweaks across his defense, including using three D-line looks more often and creating a “big nickel” package. Throughout his career, the Vikings’ head coach has always been willing to adapt. He might have to do it again with Barr.