Anthony Barr and the changing landscape for linebackers

Only a few days into 2018 training camp, Minnesota Vikings head coach Mike Zimmer called an impromptu press conference. His big announcement: Trade rumors surrounding Anthony Barr were bunk.

Now nobody is quite sure where rumors of a Barr trade came from or if they even existed in the first place, even in a world filled with NFL reporters who have sources in high places. Nonetheless, Zimmer vehemently denied the non-existent trade buzz.

“We are unequivocally not trying to trade Anthony. He’s the first draft pick we ever had with me. He’s helped this defense go from 32nd or 31st, whatever it is, to being pretty good, there’s no, none whatsoever, truth to that rumor,” Zimmer said.

It was natural to speculate about potential deals considering Barr was set to hit free agency following the 2018 season. He had also played coy about his absence from the previous day’s practice.  Still the reporters on hand were so stunned by his announcement — usually we hear about these rumors before the head coach — that the first follow-up question after Zim’s opening statement was about new tackling rules. When we finally got back around to asking about Barr, Zimmer went into more detail about why he wasn’t interested in parting ways with the team’s 2014 first-round selection.

“He’s smart as heck,” Zimmer said. “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.”

Fast forward one year later, the Vikings will be heading into camp with Barr locked into a five-year, $67.5 million contract.

Getting there was a little wonky. The road back to Minnesota coincidentally included reports that he was going to the Jets that turned out not to be true. Ultimately he had agreed to a deal and then changed his mind. Maybe Zimmer does have a crystal ball.

Anyway, despite leaving some money on the table, the widespread opinion was that the Vikings still overpaid for Barr.

“We haven’t seen him be the type of impact playmaker that he would need to be to justify that money,” Pro Football Focus’s Sam Monson said on Purple Daily. “Linebacker is becoming one of those positions that the value is just diminishing in today’s NFL unless you do something special against the pass. If you are a stellar pass rusher or stellar coverage player, you can climb your way up that value chart.”

So here’s the conundrum: We have come to think of linebacker as a sub position that can largely be replaced but having Barr as a centerpiece to the Vikings defense has worked. Since Zimmer was hired, the Vikings they have finished 14th, 13th, third, first and fourth in yards allowed. They are also by far the NFL’s best third down defense during that time span.

Zimmer’s argument is this: To understand Barr’s value as a centerpiece of the Vikings’ defense is to look beyond his numbers and see a player whose size, speed an intelligence makes him the perfect modern linebacker.

Out of the backfield

Before going too deep down the rabbit hole of X’s and O’s, take a second to marvel at how unique Anthony Barr’s size is for a 2019 linebacker.

At 6-foot-5, 255-pounds, his height is in the 97th percentile of linebackers and weight in the 93nd percentile. Even if we go back  to the era of large linebackers in the early 2000s, former Vikings like Chris Claiborne (6-foot-3, 258-pounds), Keith Newman (6-foot-2, 250-pounds) and EJ Henderson (6-foot-1, 245-pounds) don’t approach Barr’s height/weight combo.

Add in the fact that he ran a 4.66 40-yard dash (60th percentile) and scored in the 90th percentile of the three-cone drill and has 86th percentile arm length and you have yourself a unique specimen at the position.

“There are advantages to it, being in throwing lanes, getting a little more respect in the running game, little more respect in the pass rush,” Barr said during minicamp. “You get targeted more in coverage because you’re usually on smaller scat guys, which is always difficult no matter if you’re a linebacker, corner, safety, whatever, it’s always a tough task.”

Anthony Barr’s NFL Combine results in percentiles via

In the backfield is where the story of Barr’s evolving value begins.

While Barr might feel like he’s being targeted more with running backs coming out of the backfield on passing routes, that isn’t really the case, says linebackers coach Adam Zimmer.

“He’s very rare for the position because he’s not only fast, he’s quick and athletic and can run, that in itself makes him a really good modern day linebacker,” Adam Zimmer said. “He can match up with running backs. A lot of times you don’t notice him because he’s covering the running back and they aren’t throwing it to his guy, that’s why sometimes on the stat sheet he doesn’t have 10 or 11 tackles but he’s but he’s making an impact for our defense that the common fan probably doesn’t notice.”

Turns out 63 linebackers had more passes thrown in their direction last season than Barr (per PFF). Overall the Vikings allowed 6.4 pass attempts toward running backs (11th) in 2018 and ranked No. 1 vs. RBs in yards allowed in 2017 (per Football Outsiders).

This is partly where the Vikings will take umbrage with Pro Football Focus’s grades. Barr ranked 36th of 57 in coverage. But Adam might argue: What about the throws opponents didn’t make?

It’s clear running backs are now some of the most dynamic players in the passing game and are being used in ways we have never seen before. In 2004 the leading running back in receptions had 73 catches (Brian Westbrook). Last year Christian McCaffrey led the NFL with 107 grabs and Saquon Barkley nabbed 91 passes.

Barr has taken notice and said he’s put an emphasis on slowing down opposing RBs in the passing game this offseason.

“I’ve done a lot of work on that this offseason. I think it’s going to continue to trend that way because it’s successful. Look at the Patriots, look at the Rams, the teams in the Super Bowl, their running backs were active in the passing game,” Barr said,

It isn’t just that running backs are catching passes — they are catching really successful passes. Sixteen of 30 running backs with more than 30 catches last year averaged at least eight yards per catch. McCaffrey caught 86 percent of passes his way and 29 of the 30 managed more than 70 percent completion percentages when targeted.

“The landscape of the running back is changing,” Adam Zimmer said. “They are all really good athletes. They can run, they’re athletic, you have to be able to match up with those guys out of the backfield. They’re spreading them out and they are lining them up as receivers a lot of times so you have to have guys who are athletic who can match up with those guys not just traditional running backs.”

Cody Alexander, who is the defensive back’s coach at Midlothian High School in Texas and author of the book “Hybrids: The Making of a Modern Defense,” points out that running backs create havoc for defenses with matchups.

“If you typically have your Mike linebacker who isn’t a great cover guy matched up against your running back, they will just start motioning out the running back and now that [linebacker] is one-on-one in space against a guy that’s must faster him and the offense can now manipulate the matchup,” Alexander said. “Defenses now in the NFL have had to change the way that they think about who is going to match up on the running back when he vacates the box. Are we going to keep the linebacker with him? Or are we going to put a cover guy? Now that you’ve taken a cover guy away from a receiver, now you expose the linebacker to a true receiver. It’s that cat and mouse game of, how are you going to defend this?”

Barr routinely gets matched up with shifty running backs in space on passing routes like on this play in Week 16 vs the Lions

This is where Mike Zimmer’s point about Barr’s intelligence comes in. The answer to offenses creating mismatches with running backs is often playing more zone.

“Because it’s such a man [coverage] league you see a lot of bunch sets, reduced sets because they are trying to rub defenders,” Alexander said. “The obvious way of defending that is going into zone. In the zone you have to constantly know who you’re matching.”

Alexander — a former grad assistant at Baylor — says that linebackers in zone have to constantly be answering if-then questions.

“The higher you go up the more those linebackers have to know because you are getting such a higher IQ of… do I have No. 3 to me or is No. 3 away?” he said. “Am I going to have help in the middle, do I not have help in the middle? Do I have a push alert? Am I going to have to push or do I have to give somebody a push alert so they can overtake it in the zone. Zone just adds a different element and you kind of have to be a little bit smarter, it’s not as easy as you’ve-got-that-guy.”

Slow motion example of Barr passing off an underneath route to Eric Wilson (50) and attacking the checkdown to the running back

And with teams always trying to manipulate the defense’s zone rules, the linebackers are often asked to adapt on the fly. Last season the Los Angeles Rams forced a series of mismatches with Barr guarding receivers. PFF credited Barr with allowing 119 yards and three touchdowns in the game. The remainder of the season he gave up 73 total yards and zero touchdowns.

“I think we spend a little more time on route concepts, matches, things like that,” Adam Zimmer said. “The running game pretty much is what it is week in and week out, so right now the guys have a good feel on how to fit the run. You have to spend a good amount of time on matching routes, matching running backs, matching tight ends, all those kinds of things.”

Tying it back into running backs, their increased usage out of the backfield adds another question for the linebacker to answer at all times. Zimmer’s point about Barr’s value is that not many linebackers can answer all those questions at once.

Motions, zone reads

Last year the NFL started copying one of Sean McVay’s favorite wrinkles: Jet motions.

Brought from the college game, the jet (or rocket) motion is when a receiver crosses behind the formation and the snap is taken when he is near the quarterback, giving the offense the option of handing off for a sweep or using a fake handoff or ignoring the receiver altogether.

“A lot of that is to mess with your eyes,” Barr said. “You have the key and then that goes across your face and if you take your eye off the key for a second it throws off the whole position you’re supposed to be in. The deception is useful and that definitely effects our position and safeties as well because our eyes are an important part of what we do.”

While the offense rarely hands off to the receiver (the NFL’s leading receiver in rushing had just 28 carries in 2018), the jet motion runs have the potential to become big plays if they aren’t properly addressed. Los Angeles’s Robert Woods averaged 8.3 yards per carry on 19 runs last year.

Alexander says jet motions pile onto the questions a linebacker has to answer.

“Here you are getting a fast motion and you have to, within a split second, identify, is there a lead blocker?” he said. “If not, are they trying to run the opposite direction? If there is a lead blocker we have to account for that and try and wall and contain and at the same time there’s a threat that there could be a pass or a run off of it. It’s kind of like when you hear a big bang and you get startled and you have to look around and how quick can you get your wherewithal?”

Jet motions are part of NFL offenses’ ploy to stretch defenses in order to create explosive plays. Alexander said he views the modern game going in the same direction as sports like soccer, hockey and basketball, whose goal is to create more space for players to operate and thus make them harder to defend.

“Jet motion is a horizontal motion,” the up-and-coming coach said. “They are pushing you from one side to the other, they are pushing you out to try and hit you vertically with either a pass or a run. If you stay too condensed they will hand off to the jet motion and they will out-leverage you. If you ignore the motion, they will hand it off and beat you outside. If you overreact to it they will hit you with a run or pass.”

The Bears ran 3 straight plays with receivers running motion into the backfield in the opening drive against the Vikings in Week 17

Another element of that ploy: Using quarterbacks as runners.

In 2018, nine quarterbacks gained more than 300 yards rushing. Go back to 2004 and you will find only Mike Vick and Daunte Culpepper achieving that feat. But quarterbacks today have come up in an era that saw the 49ers take the NFL by storm with Colin Kaepernick running zone read. Last year two rookies, Lamar Jackson and Josh Allen, both cleared 600 yards on the ground. A portion of those yards came from scrambles but now about half the NFL has quarterbacks capable of running zone read.

“Talking to NFL people, they never had to account for the quarterback and now in the past five, six, seven years, they have had to account for a running quarterback,” Alexander said. “Not everybody is going to run, you’re not going to run Aaron Rodgers or Tom Brady on zone read but now more often than not these younger quarterbacks that are coming in, they can actually run some of these zone reads and option plays. What it’s done is it’s changed the physiology of, what does it mean to be a D-end? What does it mean to be a linebacker?”

This year the Vikings will face the fifth, sixth and ninth leading rushers among QBs from 2018.

Smaller future, bigger advantage

We have seen these developments from offenses that make life harder on linebackers and increase the value of a linebacker who can play exceptional zone coverage, match up with running backs and process the game quickly enough to adapt to running quarterbacks and jet motions. You can guarantee the NFL isn’t done messing with linebackers. In fact, if you look at the chart below of the most successful areas in which throws are going in the NFL, it pays to pass the ball into the areas where linebackers live.

What does that mean for the next five years of the position? The consensus is that it’s going away from players who are Barr’s size.

“You’re seeing the smaller guys being more of a factor in the draft. Eric [Kendricks], when we drafted him, we gave the nickname Little Fella because he’s six foot,” Adam Zimmer said. “Now it seems like every linebacker around the league that’s playing in sub [packages] is about that size. I think it’s going to continue to trend that way.”

Mike Zimmer concurs.

“With the offenses being more spread out, that more athletic, smaller linebackers kind of show up a little bit more because they have to cover in space much more and when they’re in zones they might end up covering receivers, covering backs out of the backfield,” he said.

But here’s the problem: NFL offenses adapt quicker than defenses can adjust. Last year the New England Patriots ranked second in the NFL in using 21 personnel (two backs, one tight end, two receivers). Bill Belichick’s team pounded away at smaller defenses with fullback James Develin (6-foot-3, 255-pounds) on 497 total plays between the regular and postseason (per PFF). According to SharpFootballStats only the San Francisco 49ers used two backs more often.

And teams around the league are implementing more and more of the Kyle Shanahan style offensive concepts, including the Minnesota Vikings, who drafted  playmaking tight end Irv Smith and re-signed starting tight end Kyle Rudolph.

The future might not be as small as we think. Tight ends are a big part of the “position-less football” idea of using playmakers for any role. That means slot receivers who can run the football, running backs and who can line up in the slot and tight ends who can block, catch and play receiver.

“Linebackers are going to have to match up with the people in front of them, that’s tight ends and running backs, so tight ends and running backs have to be more multiple, which means linebackers have to be more multiple and a guy like Barr who’s 6-5, 260 can match up with a tight end but can also cover a running back, that guy is going to be a premium in the league,” Alexander said.

Defenses are basically going to have two choices: Use sub packages with bigger linebackers against teams who use extra tight ends and fullbacks and smaller, quicker linebackers against running backs and slot receivers. Or try to find athletic outliers like Barr, who would normally be an edge rusher at his size, and make them into do-it-all linebackers.

“Barr being that big, he can rush the passer, he can drop into coverage and he might be able to play man-to-man on a tight end,” Alexander said. “That’s invaluable for a defense because that’s a guy that can do three different things. It’s kind of like a guy in baseball when you have a five-tool player, he can do anything. When you can get a guy like that on defense it changes the way you can structure it and you can use him in multiple ways. The offense now has to account for him because he can rush or drop into pass coverage.”

Mike Zimmer has long felt that Barr’s unique size/speed/smarts combination and diverse skill set forces opponents to know where he is on every down.

“They all game plan for him,” the Vikings head coach said. “A lot of that is him sacrificing himself for being able to have other guys be able to be free on rushes and blitzes and things like that. That’s why he’s such an unselfish guy. We understand that no team that we play is ever going to say, ‘We’re not going to worry about Anthony Barr.'”

It’s worth noting that while his coverage rank was not high by PFF, Barr was graded 16th (of 57 linebackers) in run defense, 13th in tackling and seventh in pass rush.

As for his personal future, the possibility of rushing the passer more often has been batted around by analysts, Mike Zimmer and Barr at different times but his pass rush rate remained steady last season. It appears his value as a five-tool player, so to speak, is higher than as a pure pass rusher (the Jets  reportedly wanted to make him more of a rusher). However, he was successful at getting after the QB when given a chance. Barr ranked 13th in total pass rush snaps and came away with the fifth most QB pressures. Many of those came on third downs when Zimmer moved away from double-A gap blitzing last year and onto more zone blitzes.

An example of a zone blitz on third down vs. Miami. Offenses must account for Barr as a pass rusher

“I think the coaches have always done a great job playing to my strengths, and I think they’ll continue to do that,” Barr said after signing his deal. “Whatever I’m asked to do, I’ll try to do to the best of my ability. I’ll try to make the players around me better.”

So while there is reason to think linebackers shouldn’t get paid the hearty sums of edge rushers and cornerbacks, the Vikings feel they have an asset in Barr that combines old school with new age, a player that has the size to play in 2004 and the smarts and speed to play in 2022. You can see why trade rumors — even on existent ones — would have set Zimmer off.