When it comes to the NFL draft, it’s easy for a team to fall in love with what it wants a player to be rather than what that player actually is. You might’ve seen a healthy dose of it on Thursday night, as general managers across the league staged a run on offensive skill position players that was unlike any we’d seen in recent years.
It wasn’t the quantity of the names going off the board as much as it was the quality. The Bears parted with two third-rounders and a fourth to move up one spot to draft a quarterback so raw he’s practically sushi-grade. The Titans took a receiver who dominated MAC cornerbacks, and the Bengals took one who ran a combine-record 40-yard dash. In all three cases, it was easy to understand the kind of player their new employers hoped they were getting. But there’s a thin line between projection and wishful thinking when it comes to evaluations of any type, and it’s fair to wonder how often the latter ends up tainting the former.
In that sense, you might find a certain comfort in the player the Eagles nabbed at No. 14. There are some viable questions about Derek Barnett’s ceiling as an NFL player, but very few of them have anything to do with the way he looks on tape. From the moment he stepped onto the field at the University of Tennessee, the 6-3, 265-pound defensive end has stood out from his surroundings, displaying all of the hard-to-measure variables that, when combined, can best be summed up by saying: He’s a football player.
“What Derek is highly proficient at is at the top of his rush,” said Joe Douglas, the Eagles' vice president of player personnel. “So, when the d-lineman gets to the top, he is excellent - excellent ankle flexion, excellent ability to bend at the top. He can really finish.”
A lot of the things Douglas said about Barnett on Thursday night are things that he said a decade-and-a-half ago about Terrell Suggs during the run-up to the 2003 draft. Despite questions about Suggs’ speed and agility and athleticism, the Ravens selected the Arizona State star at No. 10 overall in a move that the edge rusher quickly vindicated. Fourteen years and 114.5 sacks later, Suggs is still playing for the Ravens at 34 years old.
Douglas, a Ravens scout at the time, didn’t shy away from the comparison Thursday night. Listening to him talk, you got the sense that Barnett had long been one of his personal favorites in the film room, and that Barnett’s uninspiring test results were easy to ignore when it came time to put together the draft board.
“It’s a little bit easier because of the past experience I’ve had, with a guy like Suggs,” Douglas said. “At the end of the day, the tape takes you to the player. That’s the biggest part of his resume.”
Indeed. Given his new home, Barnett’s breaking of Reggie White’s career sack record at Tennessee will gain a considerable amount of attention throughout the run-up to the 2017 season. More impressive, though, was the level of competition he did it against, with 29 of his 33 sacks coming in SEC play. Two of his more impressive performances in 2016 came when he was matched up against projected top-100 draft picks. Watch him beat Alabama’s Cam Robinson to the outside and then finish off a blindside hit to Jalen Hurts that forced fumble that the Volunteers returned for a touchdown. Watch him get two sacks while facing Florida’s David Sharpe. Both players were projected to go in the first three rounds of this year’s draft, with Robinson rated among the best available players heading into Round 2.
In recent years, the Eagles have gotten themselves into trouble when erring on the side of projection, the picks of Marcus Smith and Danny Watkins immediately coming to mind. Douglas cut his teeth in a Ravens organization that has always seemed to trust the film. From Suggs, to Ed Reed to Chris McAlister and Peter Boulware, those great Ravens defenses were built with players who were collegiate stars in power conferences. Five of their first-round picks between 2007 and 2014 came from the SEC. When Douglas was with the Bears last year, Chicago selected Georgia star defensive end Leonard Floyd, who had seven sacks as a rookie and could easily become a star over the next year or two.
Douglas used the word “finish” multiple times when discussing Barnett on Thursday. He was talking at the granular level of a scout - one of Barnett's greatest assets is his ability to maintain his speed and power as he closes on a quarterback after gaining a dominant position on a blocker - but the term could have fit a more abstract context as well. Our minds are susceptible to a recency bias, and given the amount of time a personnel staff can spend with a ground-level view of a player between the end of the college season and the start of the draft, it's only human that things like pro-day drills and combine workouts and in-person visits start to challenge three years of game action for preeminence. The schedule also allows for plenty of overthinking - idle minds and all - which can lead to a destructive micro-analysis that relegates to an afterthought the ends that a player has shown he can actually produce.
“We couldn’t be more excited about Derek. He’s a guy who is tough at nails,” Douglas said. “When I think of some of the teams I used to grow up watching here in Philadelphia, he would fit in with some of those guys from the late '80s early '90s Eagles teams. He’s Philly tough.”
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