There’s been a lot of dialogue regarding Mike Zimmer’s future with the Minnesota Vikings. While it’s certainly a critical year for the Vikings’ head coach, there is one individual who may be in an even more precarious situation: Anthony Barr.
As the ninth overall pick of the 2014 draft, Barr was the first player the Vikings drafted after hiring Zimmer. So it’s fitting that both may leave the organization simultaneously, just like they entered. However, Barr arguably has more to prove. So why are the stakes much higher for Barr than they are for Zimmer?
For starters, Barr agreed to a restructured contract that will allow him to enter free agency after this season. This is a contract year for Barr. There is more pressure than ever before to perform at a high level. If Zimmer were to lose his job, someone would almost certainly hire him as a defensive coordinator. There are no guarantees that Barr would find a team willing to sign him with the promise of being entrenched in a starting role from Day 1. Barr isn’t exclusively playing for a spot on the Vikings’ roster; he’s also auditioning to other NFL teams for a second chance.
However, the grass isn’t always greener. Just ask Everson Griffen. He struggled to make an impact with the Dallas Cowboys and the Detroit Lions before returning to Minnesota, where he’s looked like his old self. Some guys perform better when they’re in a certain scheme, and Barr’s strengths align well with what he’s assigned to do in Zimmer’s defense. Hence, it may be in his best interest to stay with the Vikings.
So what does Barr have to show going forward to ensure he remains with the team after this season?
The first and most important thing is to stay healthy. Throughout his career, Barr has struggled to stay on the field. He’s missed 25 games during his eight-year career. The Vikings’ strength and conditioning staff need to ensure he’s well-conditioned. From an outsider’s perspective, it seems like he’s being rushed back — perhaps because he’s pushing to be back on the field.
Even if he stays healthy, Barr will still have some work cut out for him. Despite having a reputation as a highly athletic run-stuffing linebacker, he hasn’t been particularly good at stopping the run since 2018. That year, his run defense grade was 72.8, according to PFF. Since then, his effectiveness as a run defender has been on the decline.
It should be noted that Barr has only played one game this year and missed the majority of last season, so take these grades with a grain of salt. That being said, it’s still concerning to see a drop-off in production from 2018 to 2019 from when he was healthy. If Barr can get back to his 2018 levels of production, he’ll be set.
If his run defense doesn’t improve, Barr could still excel in coverage. But this may be a much more difficult task. The last time he posted an elite coverage grade was in 2015, which was his second year in the league. Back then, Barr was 23 years old and in peak physical condition. Now he’s less than six months away from being on the wrong side of 30. The odds of Barr suddenly playing at an All-Pro level after years of mediocre production are slim to none.
Something that’s working in Barr’s favor is that he’s one of the Vikings’ team captains and is the primary communicator on defense. He brings a veteran presence to a linebacker room that has seen a recent influx of young players. If Barr puts himself in a situation where his value to the team is greater or equal to that of his market rate, it should be advantageous for him.
Worst-case scenario, Barr fails to impress in any capacity. If this happens, his career is likely over, despite all his accolades. However, this may not be the case if he chooses to play on a prove-it deal next year. This may not be appealing to him, especially if teams are interested in signing him to a larger contract than the Vikings could offer. Still, teams that sign veteran LBs in free agency tend to cut them once a younger backup is ready for more minutes.
One example of this is when the Miami Dolphins cut LB Kyle Van Noy one season after he signed a 4-year, $51 million contract because he was outplayed by Andrew Van Ginkel. More recently, the Detroit Lions released Jamie Collins because of the surprisingly rapid development of fourth-round rookie Derrick Barnes. The point is, long-term contracts for veteran LBs in free agency can often be fool’s gold.
The 2021 season is a crucial one for Barr. Not only is he in a contract year, but the coach who played a part in him being drafted could be headed out the door. Barr needs to perform at a high level to ensure he’ll be on the roster next year, regardless of who’s leading the team. Otherwise, his NFL career will be in jeopardy.