Zulgad: Bring back Anthony Barr? That’s a move Vikings can’t afford to make

Anthony Barr likely will always have a special place in Mike Zimmer’s defensive-loving heart. The linebacker from UCLA was the first player the Vikings selected in the draft after Zimmer was named coach in 2014, and Zimmer has made it no secret that he encouraged general manager Rick Spielman to select Barr with the ninth-overall pick.

Has Barr ever developed into the player that Zimmer and the Vikings envisioned? Probably not. There have been moments where he looked as if he might turn into a superstar, and there have been moments where he looked lost. But that isn’t the reason the Vikings need to let Barr walk as a free agent this offseason.

The biggest reason to allow Barr to sign a rich multiyear deal elsewhere is because of all the times everyone has had to ask themselves this question: Where was Anthony Barr today?

There was a time when it appeared Barr had the potential to become the Vikings’ version of first-ballot Hall of Fame defensive end and linebacker Jason Taylor. At 6-foot-6, 244 pounds, Taylor created havoc for opposing offenses. At 6-5, 255 pounds, Barr seemed like he could do the same. One play Barr could rush the quarterback, the next he could drop back into coverage. He looked like a guy who could develop into a force from any spot on the field.

Only five years into his career, that hasn’t happened. The Vikings paid Barr $12.3 million in 2018 on his fifth-year option and got three sacks, two pass breakups and one forced fumble in 13 games during a season in which he missed time because of a hamstring injury. Barr was criticized for his issues in coverage in the Vikings’ 38-31 to the Rams in Week 4, but he was put in a position to fail at times in that game. However, the times that Barr simply disappeared were far more disconcerting.

Since Zygi Wilf bought the Vikings in 2005, this franchise has been proactive in signing its best young players to long-term deals. Thus, it was telling that Barr did not get a contract extension last summer.

“I’ve been thinking about it,” Barr told ESPN at the Pro Bowl. “It’s been a whole year, two years really, coming, so — my contract was up last year, had the option, and this year now it’s really up, so the possibilities I feel like are endless and I could be anywhere. I want to be back, like I’ve said throughout the last year, but like I’ve been saying also I know my worth and I know what I’ve got to do. I’ve got to do it for me.”

The Vikings are coming off a disappointing 8-7-1 finish and expectations, internally at least, figure to be high for 2019. The NFL’s projected salary cap for next season is expected to be between $187 and $191.1 million, an increase of $10 to $14 million from 2018. With quarterback Kirk Cousins entering the second season of a three-year, $84 million contract, the Vikings are going to have to be careful with how they spend their money.

General manager Rick Spielman is going to have to make some tough decisions, especially with improvements needed on the offensive side of the ball. Spielman and Zimmer reportedly are each entering the final year of their contract, so there doesn’t appear to be a lot of margin for error. The Vikings could consider placing the franchise tag on Barr, but that figure is estimated to be around $15 million and that would impede making improvements elsewhere.

Barr, 26, might still have a chance to be a difference-maker if he was allowed to consistently rush the passer, but that’s also why he appears to be ideally suited to join a defense that plays a base 3-4 and not a 4-3. Zimmer is considered one of the top defensive minds in the NFL, but he has never turned Barr into a superstar.

Vikings reporter Courtney Cronin of ESPN pointed out in a recent piece on Barr that Pro Football Focus had him with 23 quarterback pressures on 94 rushes in 2018,  making him one of the NFL’s best blitzing linebackers.

“I don’t know,” Barr said when asked about his potential role in Minnesota. “I don’t really like to speak in hypotheticals too much, because who knows if I’m going to be back or not. Our defense is what we do. I don’t think it’s going to be a whole (lot) different than what we’ve done in the past. We make adjustments throughout offseasons and through the course of the season, but for the most part we are who we are. It’s been good to me, so we’ll see what happens.”

That sounds like a guy acknowledging that he knows his role isn’t going to change. If that’s the case, the Vikings can’t afford to pay him. And even if Barr’s role was altered, these Vikings can’t afford to make a significant investment in a guy who has had a tendency to disappear at times.