This is apparently the Year of the Rookie in Philadelphia, which certainly looks like an exciting page of the calendar, but also one that brings the need for patience along with promises for the future.
When the winter season finally comes around, the Sixers are expected to put Ben Simmons and Markelle Fultz on the court amid the anticipation befitting back-to-back No. 1 picks, and the Flyers will unveil Nolan Patrick, the No. 2 pick in the NHL draft and the centerman for whom they’ve been waiting.
Before that happens, however, another first-round pick in town will have a chance to overshadow them all. So far, the Eagles’ Derek Barnett, a defensive end taken with the 14th selection, has been able to sail under the hype radar the same way he bends low and slips the blocks of opposing offensive tackles.
Staying undetected will come to a close Monday, however, when the Eagles open training camp. It isn’t that the 21-year-old Barnett is expected to burst onto the scene or even win a starting job. But what if the player who carries the legacy of Reggie White does just that? The Eagles, almost as much as anything else, need a devastating pass rush. It is something they have lacked for a while, and the deficiency has exposed their secondary and made the entire defense vulnerable.
There is no way to predict what a rookie will do in the NFL – or any league – but Barnett comes to the Eagles with an opportunity to win over Philadelphia and get a jump on those other rookies. Local fans like nothing better than a defensive end who can get around the corner and blast a quarterback. Even in this era of diminishing sack totals because of up-tempo spread offenses and quarterbacks who get the ball out of their hands quickly, a guy could make a name for himself by causing a bit of mayhem at the line. Barnett could be just that guy.
“He is a guy who is tough as nails,” Joe Douglas, the Eagles player personnel director, said of Barnett when he was drafted. “When I think of some of the teams I used to watch growing up here in Philadelphia, he’s going to fit in with some of those guys from the late-’80s, early-’90s Eagles teams. He’s Philly tough.”
Tough is nice, but talented is even better, and Barnett, who broke White’s career sack record at Tennessee, is that, too.
“To see a guy that plays in the best conference in all of college football show up week in and week out, and be as consistent as he was, that’s a big factor,” Douglas said.
The Eagles’ pass rush wasn’t consistent at all as the team shifted back to a 4-3 defense, with their primary pressure guys moving from outside linebacker to defensive end. In the last three seasons, the Eagles have gone from 49 sacks to 37 to 34. That isn’t the entire measure of a defensive line, of course. Disrupting or hurrying the quarterback can be just as effective, but – just as a walk isn’t really as good as a hit in baseball – there’s nothing quite as satisfying as laying out the other guy. It gets his attention like nothing else.
Barnett is expected to come off the bench and get a rookie’s number of snaps. The Eagles will have Brandon Graham at one end spot, and there is a competition between veterans Chris Long and Vinny Curry for the other. There’s no guarantee that room won’t be made for a bigger role for Barnett, however. Long is on the downside of his career, and Curry has been a disappointing underachiever since getting a huge contract extension.
With the opportunity, Barnett could take a shot at the team’s first-year sack record of 13.0, set by White in 1985. (Technically, the rookie record is 9.5, set by Corey Simon in 2000, but only because the NFL semantically termed players who crossed over from the USFL, as did White, as “first-year” players, not “rookies.”) It would have to be a heck of a shot, but Barnett has caught White before, getting 33 sacks in three seasons at Tennessee to surpass the record there. That earned him a phone call from Sara White, Reggie’s widow, and added to the attention leading to the draft.
Catching White will be a great deal more difficult in the NFL. Reggie holds the team career sack record of 124 and added 74 to his total in six seasons with Green Bay and one with Carolina. It should be a while before Barnett could even consider being included in a conversation comparing the two players, but the rookie studied tapes of White at Tennessee and sets his sights high.
“The great part is what you saw on film, and what we saw on film is what we’re seeing here,” defensive line coach Chris Wilson said after spring workouts. “From a leadership standpoint, [and] from a work-ethic standpoint. He doesn’t expect anything to be easy. He doesn’t look for anything outside of being coached.”
Being a rookie isn’t supposed to be easy, even for a first-round draft pick who arrives with a lot of fanfare. Derek Barnett is lucky enough to hit town in a year when some other rookies will get most of that, however. But as training camp begins and the opening chapter of his career is written, Barnett also has the chance to get a quick head start on them.