Derek Barnett heard it from his coaches, teammates and strength trainers. Friends and family occasionally chimed in. Outsiders, too. The only time it wasn’t mentioned, it seemed, was when he faced opposing offensive linemen.
The Eagles defensive end needed to further develop a second pass-rush move.
“A lot of people know I like to run the edge. Can’t do that every play. Last year, I was pressing a little too much,” Barnett said recently. “Coaches, my teammates – everybody – they’ve been on me. But just got to learn from it. I just got to do a better job.”
Barnett isn’t a year late. He spent a significant part of his first training camp honing his bull rush. But he didn’t have the necessary strength to overpower left tackles on a consistent enough basis. It’s a common refrain for rookie edge rushers, who go from a lengthy pre-draft process right into the NFL.
The Eagles’ 2017 first-round draft pick had a promising first season. But it was played, at times, with one note. Barnett would uncork his patented outside speed rush – the one that produced most of his 33 sacks in college – but most tackles were quick enough to cut it off.
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His struggles against much larger blockers were compounded by a sports hernia. Barnett said he first suffered the injury in late November, but he seemed to be running to post-practice treatment for most of the season.
Of Barnett’s five regular-season sacks, though, just ½ came in final six games. He did notch a sack in the NFC championship, but he was clearly exhausted by the Super Bowl, where he failed to even register a pressure.
Barnett had surgery immediately after the parade and finally took the rest he wasn’t afforded the previous offseason. When he was healthy, he started a weight lifting program designed to strengthen his foundation. There were lots of squats and power cleans.
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He’s a work in progress, as he often says when he mentions the minor strides he has made. Asked Friday how Barnett’s second move was coming along, Eagles defensive line coach Chris Wilson said, “pretty good.”
“He’s playing with a lot more power,” Wilson said. “He’s really strong versus tight ends. And the biggest thing I’m looking forward to is watching how he plays versus tackles in these upcoming weeks.”
It’s difficult to make an evaluation off the seven snaps Barnett played in the Eagles’ preseason opener, but he has looked stronger in training camp, particularly in his short area burst. Left tackle Jason Peters still maintains a decided advantage, but when matched up against backup Halapoulivaati Vaitai, Barnett has had some wins.
“His bull rush is stronger,” Vaitai said. “Now I have to figure out what he’s doing. But if I get to my spot and set, he reverts to that bull rush. I anchor down and have my hands inside him so I can take all that power away.”
Barnett said that when he watched film of his rookie season, he saw someone who tried to make too many plays and didn’t perform within the framework of the defense. His five sacks were tied for fifth among rookie edge rushers – the Bengals’ Carl Lawson (8½), Steelers T.J. Watt (7), Browns’ Myles Garrett (7), and Falcons’ Takkarist McKinley (6) finished ahead of him and the Patriots’ Deatrich Wise.
He also finished fourth among rookies in hits (10) and hurries (21). But a complementary move would have padded his numbers. All of Barnett’s sacks came when he rushed the edge. Only three of the six, including the postseason, were the result of beating a left tackle. The three other sacks came when he was unblocked, and beat a tight end and running back.
They count all the same, but Barnett’s role and snaps will increase this season – as will his competition with the likely return of Pro Bowl Cowboys tackle Tyron Smith, who missed both games against the Eagles. Barnett has been given the departed Vinny Curry’s starting spot at right end.
“I think with experience comes confidence,” Wilson said. “I think he understands that the role that he’s in and that he’s earned. He’s always been a self-motivated guy. You don’t have to push him.”
The Eagles don’t have a natural right end to supplant Barnett. Brandon Graham, Chris Long and the just-arrived Michael Bennett have spent the bulk of their careers lining up on the left in a 4-3 front. But any of them can slide over, and will have to, assuming the Eagles dress only four ends on Sundays.
Barnett is the smallest of the four. Long and Bennett are plus-270, and while the 265-pound Graham has only a listed six pounds more than Barnett, he’s built differently. He has a lower center of gravity and bigger legs, while Barnett is lean and pliable.
“One thing about Derek is he always has terrific bend,” Eagles tackle Lane Johnson said. “If there’s anything he can improve upon it’s his strength. But once he gets that down and can get that Brandon Graham strength he’s going to be pretty dominant.”
He just turned 22 in June. He still, in many ways, carries himself as a rookie. He’s the quietest guy in the defensive line meeting room, although that is generally his personality. But when he does talk, per Wilson, “He says what he means, and he means what he says.”
And he listens.
“We got a great group of guys in there and they critique me,” Barnett said. “I think having a lot of older guys in the room helps me. They tell me when I mess up. They correct me. And it goes a long way hearing it from guys that have been in the league a long time.”
When Barnett starts hearing from opposing tackles that he needs to work on a third move, he’ll know he’s made it.
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