Suddenly, the ball was just there, and it even took a lucky bounce — off Derek Barnett’s foot, into his belly. The rookie defensive end summoned the presence of mind to wrap his arms around it and take a step toward the New England goal line before he was quickly tackled.
“It was crazy. A lot of people do ask me about it. I just tell ’em the same thing: It was very, very loud. You really couldn’t hear anything out there,” Barnett said this week, reflecting on his recovery of the Tom Brady fumble that Brandon Graham forced, giving the Eagles the ball with a little more than two minutes remaining in their Super Bowl LII victory. Barnett, initially shoved to the ground on the play, got up and started moving toward Brady just as the ball bounced loose.
“It happened quick. BG [Graham] came up clutch,” Barnett said. “We needed a big play at the right time … . BG made that play, and I was just right there to get it.”
What no one knew at the time was that Graham was playing with a high-ankle sprain that would eventually require surgery. On Thursday, as the Eagles wrapped up minicamp, received their Super Bowl rings, and adjourned until late July, Graham was still using a crutch to get around.
Barnett, meanwhile, played Super Bowl LII with a sports hernia that also required surgery, which he said he underwent right after the season.
Play the most snaps (424 in the regular season, 83 in the playoffs) of any rookie on a Super Bowl-winning team, and the impulse might be to live it up a bit in the offseason. Maybe even go back to college and bask in the glory. Barnett did not. He said he didn’t drop in on the Tennessee Vols’ spring practices, didn’t take any exotic trips.
“I had surgery and stayed around here and rehabbed. Focused on some things I need to get better at,” he said. “One of the big things I need to improve on is my strength, getting stronger, and also getting better with my hands, [along with] just getting smarter, seeing things before the play even happens, ID-ing the formation, picking up on little tips and cues … . Being able to play third down and also playing the run well. Not being one-dimensional.”
>> READ MORE: Practice observations from the final minicamp practice
That was exactly the way Barnett was as a rookie — serious and focused. His five sacks, achieved while playing just 41 percent of the defensive snaps, were the most of any Eagles rookie defensive lineman since Fletcher Cox managed 5.5 in 2012.
“I think the best asset he’s got is the ability to want to learn,” veteran defensive end Steven Means said Thursday. “He always asks me stuff … . You’ve got to respect a guy who takes his craft real seriously.”
Barnett downplayed the sports hernia, saying he didn’t know when he suffered it. He was listed sporadically on injury reports with the notation “groin,” starting in late November.
As for how much he was limited against New England, Barnett said: “I was good in the Super Bowl. Nobody hurt during the Super Bowl.”
Means said that he sometimes took practice reps for Barnett. “I knew he had it. … It was something he kept playing through.
“That goes to show you what it takes … . You’ve got to be willing to sacrifice it all … . You got a sports hernia, that’s a tear. You’re out there playing with torn ligaments and all that. That’s sacrificing.”
Defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz also noted how Barnett played through the injury.
“Derek was able to maintain an ability to contribute on Sundays. Maybe if you had seen a Wednesday practice, maybe it didn’t look like [he would be able to], but he was able to persevere through,” Schwartz said. “He’s a mentally tough guy … . All our guys have to be. They all have challenges. He had his last year.”
When he was preparing for the NFL draft, Barnett asked veterans what the NFL was like, and everyone mentioned the length of the season compared to college. Even so, playing into February was a bigger challenge than he had imagined.
“It was just a lot longer than what I expected,” Barnett said. “It was very long, but I’m not complaining about that; that’s a good thing. I hope this year is long as well.”
Again, though Barnett might have been minimizing.
“You talk about a long season for him – summer workouts [at Tennessee in 2016], the whole season, he goes straight into working out for the NFL, the combine, to the draft, get drafted, gotta come to rookie minicamp,” Means said. “All the OTAs, the vet minicamp, then training camp, then the preseason, then the whole year, then after that go to the postseason, go to the Super Bowl.”
Surgery notwithstanding, Barnett got much more of a respite this offseason than he did when he was preparing to become a first-round pick. He is back to full strength, and though he will again be part of a rotation, he has a good shot at playing significantly more snaps on a defensive line that is very accomplished but also fairly old, with Graham, Chris Long, Haloti Ngata, and Michael Bennett standing on the far side of 30.
“Most players make a significant improvement from Year 1 to Year 2, Schwartz said. “I think it’s sort of one of the adages of the NFL. That’s where you see a significant improvement.
“He set that bar pretty high in his first year. Made a lot of big plays for us. Also gained a lot of experience dealing with the long season … . He had some bumps and bruises, just like everybody, and the experience of dealing with that stuff … . I think he’s more seasoned now, little bit stronger now. Obviously, he’s been through the ringer, knows what to expect.”
Barnett said his goals this season are to “play as much as possible, compete, and help win. I can’t control whether I start or not.”