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May 07, 2017

Derek Barnett was indeed a good pick for the Eagles at 14th overall

Eagles NFL

When the Philadelphia Eagles selected Derek Barnett with the 14th overall pick in the first round of the 2017 NFL Draft, my expectation was that it would largely be met favorably by the fans. To my surprise, there was a lot of disappointment in the pick.

The day after the Eagles made the pick, I inquired why fans were down on the pick on Twitter and received over 200 responses, which you can read by clicking on the tweet below:

The reasoning was all over the map, ranging from legitimate concerns to a misunderstanding of the player to incoherent nonsense.

Let's address the most common objections.

The talent that remained on the board was better than Barnett. 

The most commonly cited players who were viewed as better than Barnett were Florida State RB Dalvin Cook, Alabama LB Reuben Foster, Alabama TE O.J. Howard, Alabama DE Jonathan Allen, and Ohio State S Malik Hooker. We'll address each of them individually:

Dalvin Cook: Cook had a laundry list of major red flags, including off-field concerns, fumbling issues, multiple shoulder surgeries, a terrible Combine performance, not to mention that it was one of the most stacked running back drafts in recent memory. Oh, and he went 41st overall, so taking him at 14 would have been taking him at a spot far, faaaaaaar higher than where the rest of the league viewed his value. There's no reasonable argument whatsoever that the Eagles should have taken Cook at 14.

Reuben Foster: Like Cook, Foster had his share of issues, namely off-field concerns and shoulder issues. Like the Eagles, almost every team in the NFL also passed on Foster, and for good reason. He may not even play in 2017. Again, there's no reasonable argument that the Eagles should have taken Foster at 14.

Jonathan Allen: Allen was my first round pick in my final Eagles-only mock draftI think he was a “top five” type of talent in this draft, but he was a medical risk due to arthritic shoulders. I don't have the Eagles' doctors' reports on him, so I don't know what they know. As such, I'm not in a position to say they should have taken him, and really, neither is anyone else. Obviously, 15 teams other than the Eagles passed on him as well, so the Eagles weren't alone.

O.J. Howard: Zach Ertz isn't going anywhere anytime soon. Last offseason he signed a lucrative contract extension, and then this offseason, the team re-worked his deal, paying him a signing bonus up front, and then spreading that cap hit over the back end of his deal, a common move teams will make with franchise-type players to create immediate cap space. 

Had the Eagles drafted a player like Howard, it would have signaled that the Eagles were committed to putting two tight ends on the field as their base offense. If that were to be the plan, then fine, go ahead and take him. Otherwise, if you have either Ertz or Howard sitting on the bench for a substantial portion of the game, then that would have been a bad use of resources.

There is an argument that Howard may have been the "best player available," depending on your preferences. Barnett's production in college put Howard's to shame, though Howard was thought of a player with more upside. But certainly, choosing Barnett over Howard was far from an egregious move, and which player is "better" is debatable.

Malik Hooker: Hooker was a great playmaker at Ohio State, which is obviously appealing, but he was a bad tackler. He has a ways to go before he becomes a complete safety in the NFL. When you look at the importance of position, team needs, and the fact that Hooker just had two surgeries to repair hernia as well as a torn labrum, I would take Barnett over him all day.

Defensive end wasn't a need. The Eagles already have Brandon Graham, Vinny Curry, and Chris Long.

To begin, I think that reaching for needs is terrible draft strategy, so I would disagree with this statement even if defensive end weren't a need. That said, defensive end was unquestionably a major need heading into this draft.

For Jim Schwartz's defensive scheme to work optimally, the defensive line ideally is able to get to the quarterback without the help of blitzers. The more quality pass rushers to add to the rotation, the better.

But also, Chris Long is 32 and on the downside of his career, while Curry is coming off a 2.5-sack season and is in severe danger of being a cap casualty next offseason. The only defensive end other than Barnett who is a near-certainty to be on the roster in 2018 is Graham, who will turn 30 by then.

Defensive end wasn't just a need heading into the 2017 NFL Draft. It'll probably continue to be one heading into the 2018 NFL Draft.

(Others mentioned Marcus Smith and Alex McCalister as examples of players who provide depth at DE, lol.)

You can get pass rushers later in the draft.

Like every other position in the NFL, yes, you can sometimes find good players later in the draft. That's less true of some positions, including edge rusher.

• In 2016, 16 players had double-digit sacks. 9 of them were drafted in the first round.

• In 2015, 16 players had double-digit sacks. 11 of them were drafted in the first round.

• In 2014, 18 players had double-digit sacks. 10 of them were drafted in the first round.

Of the 50 double-digit sack seasons in the NFL over the last three seasons, 30 of them (60 percent) were by players drafted in the first round. While you can certainly find diamonds in the rough later in the draft, it's far more likely that you're gong to have to find your impact pass rushers in the first round.

Barnett isn't athletic.

This knock on Barnett is largely due to his Combine performance, which certainly wasn't great, though it should be noted that he had the flu the day he was tested.

At the Combine, the 40-yard dash is important for running backs, wide receivers, safeties, and especially cornerbacks. It's far less important for defensive ends, who almost never are required to get into a full-on sprint during a game. Barnett ran a 4.88 in the 40-yard dash, which is not good, but doesn't really matter.

The more important measure for a defensive end is the 3-cone drill. Dane Brugler of CBS published a good article in which scouts explained the validity of each Combine drill. An NFL scout said that the 3-cone drill is the most important.

“The single most important drill at the combine, plain and simple. Regardless of position, I want to know how the player performs in space, and this helps show change of direction, explosiveness and overall athleticism. There is validity to this test translating to the football field.”

Change of direction, explosiveness, and overall athleticism are more important at defensive end than straight-line speed. Barnett finished in the 88th percentile at his position in that drill, posting an impressive time of 6.96 seconds. By comparison, 6'0, 186-pound cornerback Sidney Jones posted a 7.02-second 3-cone drill.

The Underwear Olympics aside, just watch him play. There are 14 games in Barnett's library at DraftBreakdown.com. Take special note at Barnett's drops into coverage, where he looks surprisingly comfortable. Or maybe the way he's able to bend around the edge at top speed, which most professional pass rushers cannot do.

There were defensive ends in this draft who had better 40 times, or maybe have a more explosive first step at the snap, but the notion that Barnett isn't athletic is absurd to me.

He's too similar to Brandon Graham.

Brandon Graham is a really good player. I'm not sure exactly why this would be viewed as a bad thing. That said, I will agree that there are similarities between the two, but they're not mirror images. Like Graham, Barnett isn't tall by defensive end standards, and has sort of a thicker build. Both players also do a good job in the run game.

As pass rushers, they have different styles. Graham typically wins with power, getting offensive tackles off balance and bull rushing them. Barnett's biggest strength is winning with his hands, along with his impressive bend around the edge at top speed.

He's too similar to Marcus Smith.

What? No.

Smith was productive in college, as was Barnett. By that logic, Barnett is similar to Reggie White. The reality is that he's not at all like either player.

Smith was a clear-cut 3-4 OLB prospect with some versatility to rush the passer, as well as drop into coverage. His skill set mirrored that of Connor Barwin. Yes, Smith had excellent sack production in college. For example, he led the nation with 15 sacks his last season at Louisville. 

However, when you watch his highlight reels, you can easily identify that he got a high number of free runs at the quarterback. On many other occasions, he was getting schemed free on stunts and loops. What you don't see much of is Smith beating offensive tackles mano-e-mano:


Not to be a "highlight scout," but watch Barnett's sacks in his highlight reel. He is beating offensive tackles. Badly.


Barnett's production was a result of him winning against the man in front of him, not because his defensive scheme was getting him free for gift sacks.

He's too small.

Barnett was 6'3, 259 at the Combine. I don't know if that has since changed, but he's listed on the Eagles' website at 6'3, 268. Trent Cole was roughly the same size when he played in Philly, and there was no question that he was a strong player.

Barnett's height/weight is a smidgen below average, but I wouldn't exactly call him small. In the run game, he does a very good job setting the edge. That would be a major concern for a "small" defensive end, but I don't see that as a knock on Barnett's game at all. He does need to develop a better bull rush, as that was not an effective piece in his pass rush repertoire.

It's also worth noting that he's still only 20-years old. If he's the hard worker the Eagles think he is, he's going to continue to get stronger.

He's a one-trick pony.

There's a concern that Barnett's only pass rush move is his dip/bend around the edge. Unquestionably, it's his most effective move. However, while it's not exactly flashy like Dwight Freeney's spin move, Barnett is very effective cutting back inside when offensive tackles overplay his elite outside rush. He had plenty of sacks with inside moves.

There are some who believe that won't translate to the NFL. I disagree. The other aspect of Barnett's pass rush that is so effective is his hand usage. When you watch him closely, he does an incredible job of knocking opposing offensive linemen's hands down. Once you get an OT's hands down, it's game over. All they can do at that point is try to hold the pass rusher as he runs by them. You see it repeatedly with Barnett on film. 

If indeed Barnett is a one-trick pony, it's one hell of a trick, though I disagree that he only wins one way. I do agree, however, that he needs to add more moves to his pass rush repertoire, which is thin on variety.

Because he's so reliant on his outside pass rush, professional offensive tackles will easily shut him down.

By my count, Barnett played 14 games against drafted left tackles in his career at Tennessee. He had 15 sacks in those games.

Conclusion

Would it be cooler if Barnett were 6'8, 300 pounds with a 4.4 40, and flashier pass rush moves? Sure. Of course, he'd have gone No. 1 overall if that were the case.

As is, Barnett is a 20-year-old, record-breaking, ultra-productive player with premium pass rush skills at arguably the most important position on defense who did his damage in the best conference in the country. He was absolutely worthy of being the Eagles' 14th-overall pick. 


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