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Bringing back Barr is the right move for Vikings

The Anthony Barr era in Minnesota appeared to be over. Until it wasn’t

ESPN’s Adam Schefter is reporting that Barr intended to sign with the Jets and then reversed course and agreed to come back to the Vikings.

While there have been ups and downs during his five years in Minnesota, the Vikings understand the value of their Pro Bowl linebacker.

During an impromptu press conference last season in attempt to debunk trade rumors, head coach Mike Zimmer made several key points about Barr’s impact on opposing offenses.

“Number one, he’s smart as heck, so I can tell him to do all kinds of different things, make all kinds of different checks and adjustments,” Zimmer said. “He’s got great size, length and speed. He dictates the game in a lot of different ways that don’t show up on the stat sheet, and to me that’s important.”

During Zimmer and Barr’s tenure together, the Vikings’ head coach has used the former UCLA star as an all-around linebacker rather than a pure edge rusher, which he was initially projected to be. While Barr made it clear he preferred to rush the passer rather than drop back in coverage, the 6-foot-5, 250-pound LB made the Pro Bowl four times under Zimmer and acted as a linchpin to defenses that ranked 11th, 5th, 6th, 1st and 9th in points allowed.

Barr was never an elite cover linebacker by Pro Football Focus grading standards, but one area of coverage in which he stood out was against opposing running backs. When the Vikings ranked No. 1 in yards and points in 2017, they allowed the fewest yards per game through the air to opposing running backs according to Football Outsiders. That number slipped last year, but the Vikings still gave up the 11th fewest receptions to RBs per game.

Barr’s sideline-to-sideline speed for his size made it difficult for running backs to evade him. PFF ranked Barr 13th in tackling out of 57 linebackers with at least 550 snaps in 2018

His worst grades were in coverage, but Zimmer corrected scheme issues that led to the Los Angeles Rams creating extreme mismatches in Week 4. Over the final 12 games of the season, he gave up just 88 yards into his coverage.

So during Barr’s five years as a Viking, he was mostly solid in most areas of his game. But where Barr truly made an impact on opponents was third down.

Zimmer’s defenses haven’t just been good on third down, they have been magnificent. Over the past three seasons, the Vikings have given up first downs on just 31.5 percent of third downs. The next best team, Baltimore, trails by 4.1 percent.

Barr’s ability to rush the passer is elite among all-around linebackers. Last season he created 23 pressures on just 103 pass rush snaps. He ranked fifth among linebackers in total pressures and seventh in PFF’s pass rush grade. Many of those snaps came on third downs.

Zimmer said he moved away from double A-gap blitzes which sent Barr up the middle and changed to zone or overload blitzes on third downs, which routinely involved Barr.

“As the season’s gone on we’ve changed a few up,” he said. “There were a couple, maybe four or five (versus the Dolphins) that we haven’t really shown much of. It’s part of the game plan thing, just seeing what we feel like what we can do and how we can attack certain players. Sometimes its just we’re going to do this blitz so that we can throw some of these chips off the defensive ends.”

The continued effectiveness despite the change speaks to Zimmer’s original point: Barr’s football IQ mixed with physical ability has given the defensive-minded head coach an ability to use him as a chess piece.

Not many teams have that. The most comparable player to Barr is New England’s Donta Hightower,  who rushed 207 times (30 pressures) and was targeted in coverage 35 times last season.

Had the Vikings let Barr walk, they would have had a difficult time filling his shoes with a limited free agent market and only Eric Wilson on the roster to take his place. Bringing him back allows Zimmer to keep his versatile star.


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