The Eagles selected Tennessee defensive end Derek Barnett with the No. 14 overall pick in the NFL draft Thursday night in front of a spirited crowd along the Art Museum steps that heard that music from Rocky as NFL commissioner Roger Goodell took the stage.
Barnett was a few feet away when his name was called. He held up an Eagles jersey in front of his new fans, pleased with the anticipated reception even if was not met with unanimous approval.
“I was nervous, I didn’t want to get boos,” Barnett said minutes after the selection. “I got a warm welcome and I appreciate the fans for giving me a warm welcome.”
Wearing a midnight green hat with his burgundy suit, Barnett could return to his Philadelphia hotel room without needing to worry about jetting to a new city on Friday morning. He only needs to head south on Broad Street to meet his new employer and see his new workplace.
“My first reaction, I’m glad I don’t have to go too far so I can go straight to work,” Barnett said. “That’s my mindset.”
Barnett, 20, is 6-foot-3 and 259 pounds and ran a 4.88-second 40-yard dash at the scouting combine. He broke former Eagles Hall of Famer Reggie White’s sack record at Tennessee with 33 in three years. Barnett started as a freshman and was among the best defensive linemen in the Southeastern Conference each year. He was first-team all-American and first-team all-SEC last season with 13 sacks.
The Eagles selected Barnett over top prospects such as Alabama defensive end Jonathan Allen and tight end O.J. Howard. They zeroed in on a productive player who can help a pass rush that totaled only 16.5 sacks among all its defensive ends last season. Their top three defensive ends (Brandon Graham, Vinny Curry, and Chris Long) will all be at least 29 this season.
Most of Barnett’s sacks came against SEC competition, giving the Eagles’ brass confidence that his skills could translate. That production trumped poor combine testing. Barnett said Wednesday that he’s a “great football player<TH>… not a great track star.” Good thing the Eagles drafted him to play football.
When he took his visit to the Eagles’ facility earlier this month, the team’s brass compared him to Baltimore Ravens pass rusher Terrell Suggs. Suggs also had a poor combine performance that hurt his draft stock, falling to the Ravens at No. 10 pick in 2003. He’s played 14 seasons in the NFL and has 114.5 career sacks – a draft memory that likely stuck with Eagles executive Joe Douglas, who worked for the Ravens at the time.
Barnett was sick while he ran his 40-yard dash, offering him an excuse if he wanted to skip the workout. He refused to do so, unconcerned how the testing would affect his draft prospects.
“It was an important job interview and if I didn’t run it, a lot of people would have questioned my toughness,” Barnett said. “I’m not going to run from anything, I’m a very competitive person.”
Barnett is praised for his first step at the line of scrimmage and the way he uses his hands to disengage blockers. He’s also tough against the run, in addition to his pass-rush skills, a balance that teams liked in the pre-draft process. He said he makes play away from his spot because of how much he hustles on the field.
The Eagles benefited from an early run on quarterbacks (there were three in the top 12 picks) and an early run on wide receivers (there were three in the first nine). That pushed top defensive players down the draft board, giving the Eagles the chance to bolster their unit with a prospect who could have gone in the top 10.
It was the 10th time in 21 years that the Eagles spent their top draft pick on a defensive lineman or an edge rusher, showing the value that the team places on the position. Jim Schwartz’s defense is built around its pass rush with four linemen, and Howie Roseman’s team-building philosophies includes an emphasis on defensive ends.
By taking Barnett, the Eagles still have not plugged a hole at cornerback or improved the offensive weapons for Carson Wentz. Those could be priorities for the next two days. On Thursday night, Barnett was the target. He watched the telephone the NFL provided for the draft attendees, but it never rang. Finally, his cell phone buzzed with a 215 number. That’s when he realized he would play for the Eagles.
He still has much to learn about his new home, although he said he’s already realized how passionate the fans are and he enjoyed a cheesesteak during his visit. (He only ate one, concerned about putting on weight.) But there will be time to learn what is now a “special place” for him, because it’s both who drafted him and where he was drafted. And when he arrives at the facility on Friday, he no longer needs to worry about the draft.
“I love football,” Barnett said, “and I’m ready to get back to what I love to do.”