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August 01, 2017

Derek Barnett’s work ethic drawing high praise from Eagles coaches, veteran players

It was sort of fitting that on the hottest day of training camp at the NovaCare Complex, the Eagles finally were “live.” The offense and the defense scrimmaged, and save for Carson Wentz and the other guys in the red jerseys, everyone was fair game. Full tackling. It was just like the Andy Reid days, minus the hour ride up the Northeast Extension.

At one point, defensive line coach Chris Wilson raised his voice and told rookie defensive end Derek Barnett that with how he was lined up, opponents could easily run an inside zone against the Eagles. Of course, Wilson’s explanation was both a bit more concise and, um, colorful.

As Barnett put it, “He’s been on me every practice.”

“Everything I do, he’s very critical. And that’s what coach is supposed to do, he’s supposed to help me get better. Sometimes he’s getting on me. It may not be fun, but he’s helping me become a good ballplayer.”

When Wilson spoke last month about the Eagles’ newest first-round pick, he praised the 21-year-old’s talent level as a pass rusher. Eagles fans have been reminded time and again that Barnett broke Reggie White’s sack record at the University of Tennessee, and you obviously don’t top the greatest defensive end in both Eagles and NFL history without some level of ability.

There still likely promises to be a learning curve, though, which we're seeing a bit in training camp. Wilson described Barnett as “dominant in probably the best league in college football,” but neither he nor his young pupil expect a smooth transition to the NFL right away.

“He doesn’t expect anything to be easy, he doesn’t look for anything outside of being coached,” Wilson said.

That message was echoed by Chris Long, who has lined up opposite Barnett as the Eagles second-team DEs, a fellow former high draft pick that has been impressed by Barnett’s approach in training camp so far.

“What I think is awesome about a kid like him who sets records at his college, he’s a highly-touted kid but he comes to work every day,” Long said. “There’s no ego.”

A couple of factors are working against Barnett putting up the type of numbers he’s grown accustomed to (33 sacks in 39 total games at Tennessee) in 2017. To begin, a decent amount of elite pass rushers take a full season to become just that. In 16 games each as first-year NFL players, J.J. Watt managed 5.5 sacks, Khalil Mack registered 4.0, and Jason Pierre-Paul had 4.5 just to single out a few. 

The Eagles don’t need Barnett to star right away — On the defensive line, that responsibility belongs to Fletcher Cox, and to a lesser extent, Brandon Graham — but they sure could use some flashes from the rookie.

“If I’m playing 10, 20 reps, however many, just be as dominant [as possible] and affect the game,” Barnett said he envisions as his Week 1 role in Washington.

The Eagles’ excellent defensive line depth is the other factor working against a big rookie season for the 14th overall pick. According to Barnett, though, the high level of talent that the Birds defense has up front could pay dividends for him in the long run.

Apparently, it’s not just Wilson who is willing to criticize Barnett. One of “the oldheads and the vets” who counsels the rookie is Graham, who said that he offers one major message for Barnett: getting off the ball quickly is half the battle.

“I told him, ‘I see you got all of the tools man, you can bend,’” Graham said. “’You just got to keep perfecting your craft and you just got to make sure you get off that ball.’”

It has also been well documented how Jason Peters has helped Barnett after practice work on developing a counter to his excellent edge rush (which he has weirdly been extremely reticent to break out in camp so far), another example of the Tennessee product accepting all of the help he can.

“Every time I get a chance to talk to him, I get in his ear,” Barnett said. “Just try to ask him, ‘When should I do this? When should I not? Am I giving away any ticks?’ Any chance I can talk to him, he’s seen a lot of rushes, he’s seen a lot of good defensive ends so he knows what he’s talking about.”

We have no idea how Derek Barnett’s career will turn out, but one thing seems fairly certain: if he’s a disappointment, it probably won’t be for a lack of preparation.

Follow Rich on Twitter: @rich_hofmann

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