On a roster that has plenty of interesting pieces, the biggest enigma on the Minnesota Vikings might be Anthony Barr. After being selected with the ninth overall pick in the 2014 NFL Draft, there was plenty of upside for a guy who had only spent two seasons on the defensive side of the ball and projected as a pass-rushing weapon for Mike Zimmer’s defense.
For one season, that vision came to fruition as Barr recorded 70 total tackles (55 solo, six for loss), four sacks and a fumble-six against Tampa Bay that seemed to put him on the path to superstardom. The rest of Barr’s career has been surrounded by plenty of questions.
Last year, it felt like the Vikings were expecting Barr to finally have that big, breakout season after signing him to a five-year, $67.5 million contract in free agency. Barr recorded a career-high with 79 total tackles, but his impact rushing the quarterback was minimal with a career-low 1.5 sacks.
Entering his age-28 season, it’s hard to get a firm opinion on Barr, but he may have some help with the addition of Dom Capers to the Vikings coaching staff. As a maestro of the 3-4 defense during his time as Green Bay’s defensive coordinator, the veteran knows how to get the most out of his pass-rushing linebackers including Clay Matthews.
By adding a few more wrinkles to Mike Zimmer’s defense, Capers might be the key to Barr having the breakout season Vikings fans have been waiting for.
COMPARING BARR AND MATTHEWS
From a physical standpoint, it makes plenty of sense to utilize Barr in the same way Capers utilized Matthews in Green Bay. Comparing their Mockdraftable spider charts, the two linebackers have roughly the same size (especially after Matthews has bulked up to 255 pounds) and speed, but Matthews was a better athlete while Barr is longer, which should help him as a pass rusher.
|Clay Matthews (2009)||Anthony Barr (2014)|
|Weight||240 lbs||255 lbs|
|20 Yard Shuttle||4.18s||4.19s|
While their physical profile is similar, the results on the field haven’t been there. Matthews has been a pass-rushing specialist both in Green Bay and Los Angeles, averaging 50 pressures per season and 91.5 sacks. Meanwhile, Barr has averaged 22.5 pressures per season and has 15 career sacks.
For Vikings fans, this is maddening considering how good Barr was during his rookie year and how his 2018 metrics by Pro Football Focus had him first in pass rusher productivity, forcing a pressure on 13.8% of his pass-rushing snaps. So why isn’t Barr producing at the same level as Matthews?
USING BARR PROPERLY
The production gap between Barr and Matthews can be shown by how much they are asked to rush the passer. For his career, Barr has rushed the quarterback on 12% of his snaps, as Zimmer has asked him to drop back into coverage more. By comparison, Matthews has rushed the passer 47% of the time during his career and the scheme has had a lot to do with it.
In Capers’ 3-4 defense, he used Matthews as a ringer that could get to the passer but also drop back into coverage. His 2014 season is probably the best example of this as Matthews was in his age-28 season, which Barr will be entering in 2020.
Examining the first quarter of a Packers victory over Carolina, the wrinkles were evident and they asked Matthews to do it all, but mainly used him as a torpedo toward the backfield. On the opening drive, Matthews made acquaintances with Jonathan Stewart and effectively claimed his territory throughout the afternoon.
In addition, Matthews wasn’t rushing from just one spot. In order to get Nick Perry more involved, Matthews switched sides to rush from the strong side, and while it didn’t generate in pressure or a sack, it shows that Capers was willing to use Matthews as a chess piece.
This made Matthews more effective in coverage, and when Capers decided to drop him back, it resulted in a pick-six (that was eventually called back on a defensive penalty).
For someone like Barr, who spent 51% of his snaps in coverage last season, this would be welcomed and could give offenses a moment of doubt as to where he is on the field.
HOW TO OPTIMIZE BARR’S USAGE
To say you’re going to have Barr rush the passer and actually do it involves a couple of moving parts. Much like the Vikings didn’t run many three-receiver sets because they were limited to Laquon Treadwell and Olabisi Johnson, the Vikings didn’t rush Barr because they had no one to make up for him in coverage. That’s where fourth-round draft pick Troy Dye could come into play.
Dye is an undersized linebacker at 6’4″, 224 pounds, but could add some size by the time the regular season rolls around. While he lacks in the prototypical linebacker department, he is a dynamo in pass coverage, compiling a 77.6 pass coverage grade according to Pro Football Focus last season. Dye was also so versatile that Oregon even played him at slot cornerback for 44 snaps, which should come in handy for the Vikings.
Instead of using Ben Gedeon, who has seen his pass coverage grade drop over each of the past three seasons in the league, the Vikings could deploy Dye on snaps where Barr rushes the passer. By having a second coverage ace in Eric Kendricks, the Vikings could get more aggressive and Barr could be making more of the impact plays that we saw in his rookie season.
Of course, that depends on Dye getting up to speed. If he’s able to do that or if second-year linebacker Cameron Smith takes a leap forward, Capers could convince Zimmer to be more aggressive on defense knowing there’s an upgrade in that second level. Should that happen, Capers may be the guy that finally gets the best out of Barr.