Derek Barnett is at the table, fork and knife in hand, and ready to eat. But his position coach said supper isn’t ready to be served.
Asked if it was too early to talk about starting the Eagles rookie defensive end, assistant Chris Wilson pushed the notion back into the oven despite Barnett’s explosive start in the first two preseason games.
“Yeah, it is [too early],” Wilson said on Saturday. “It’s Game 2. He’s played against some solid competition, but to see him go against a [starting left tackle] day after day after day – those are going to be the critical factors.
“He’s a rookie. He’s got a lot of work ahead of him. And, again, he hasn’t had a break, I think, since his bowl game. Those are the things we have to factor in and consider.”
While Wilson’s words of caution should be heeded – the season is long and the sample size still small – Barnett’s three sacks in two games suggests that it may only be a matter of time until he supplants starter Vinny Curry at right end. If so, when?
“When the meal’s ready,” Barnett said. “We’ll all know. The production and the consistency – that’s what you have to have in this league. It can’t be flashes. It’s got to be something every weekend when people come into the stadium they know exactly what they’re going to get.”
There are several factors, though, that could speed up the process. The Eagles have a lot invested in Curry, who signed a five-year, $46.25 million contract in 2016. But he was neither productive nor consistent last season and there is still a question of whether he can play up to his deal.
Curry will likely get plenty of opportunities. But it’s not as if Barnett is some undrafted rookie. He’s the Eagles’ top draft pick. He was selected to eventually start, and if he’s earned the right, no matter the time span, what would be the use in holding him back?
“He’s like most rookies,” Wilson said. “He’s definitely taking steps forward. But, again, he’s got a bit to go at this level. One thing that I have been pleased with is how coachable he is, how smart he is. He has really good football instincts.”
It was evident in the opener against the Packers and again on Thursday against the Bills. The athleticism is there, but he doesn’t have freakish speed or power. Much of his success – at least thus far – has come from out-thinking tackles, staying technically sound and relentlessly finishing each play.
“Whatever the tackle does I just try to take advantage of it and get in the backfield as quick as possible,” Barnett said Thursday after the Buffalo game. “But I’ve still got more work to be done. It’s just two preseason games. It’s not the regular season yet, so there are still a lot of things I need to improve.”
In two games he has three sacks, four quarterback hits, six tackles and three tackles for loss. Curry, on the contrary, has yet to garner mention in the stat sheet. But he has faced first team left tackles and has played significantly less – 22 snaps to 59 – than Barnett.
Wilson said that he has been pleased with Curry this summer. In the spring, defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz said that the 29-year-old end needed to do a better job of staying off the ground during his rushes. Curry has said that a lingering knee injury affected him throughout last season.
“If you’re doing your job people don’t really pick on you,” Wilson said. “And so, Vinny’s done a great job of being in position to make plays when they’ve had opportunities. Obviously due to the limited reps that he’s had compared to some of the reps that Derek’s had, those have shown a little bit.”
Barnett has made the best of his reps, though. In the Packers game, for instance, he not only used his outside speed rush to sack Brett Hundley, but he also used one of the complementary inside moves – a power stab – he’s been working on for months to drop the quarterback a second time.
Against the Bills, his inside power move, which resulted in a quarterback hit, set up his third sack of the preseason.
“The tackle overset me and I had a good power move inside,” Barnett said. “And then the next play I think he was sitting down more because he was probably expecting the power move, and I beat him around the edge.”
Getting to the quarterback will be job No. 1 for Barnett. But he must also defend the run, either by setting the edge or filling his gap. Wilson said that Barnett can be a three-down end, but he needs to work on understanding offensive alignments and how linemen will attack him.
But there are some attributes that can’t be taught. Barnett hustles to the whistle. He displayed that motor on Thursday when he rushed from the left, pressured Peterman out of the pocket and chased him down to the sideline. He was asked if he could maintain that effort for a full 60 minutes.
“I like to tell myself that,” Barnett said. “I try to practice that way just so I can if I need to. I think it’s just more mental than physical.”
Wilson said he comes to work ready to eat every day.
“He comes in with a no-nonsense attitude,” he said. “And he wants to earn it. He doesn’t want to be given it.”
Something’s cooking and the timer could go off sooner rather than later.