Anthony Barr Deserves To Go Out As A Sack Machine In A 3-4 Defense

Photo Credit: Jon Durr (USA TODAY Sports)

The Minnesota Vikings are used to having their head coach brag about his defense. But it felt different when Kevin O’Connell did so during his introductory press conference.

O’Connell started by calling Harrison Smith a perfect fit for his defense. He applauded Eric Kendricks for being a “huge issue.” But just as O’Connell was giving out more compliments than Mike Zimmer had during his entire tenure in Minnesota, he dropped a name that nobody was expecting.

Vikings fans were ready to say their goodbyes to Anthony Barr. But when O’Connell mentioned the linebacker position, he hinted that there were more ways to unleash their potential.

“I think there’s ways to use those guys and allow them to play with an attacking mindset while they’re still responsible for the things they’re responsible [for] defensively,” O’Connell said.

It’s no surprise that O’Connell’s 3-4 defense would be a fit for Kendricks. But it could be the scheme that fully unleashes Barr.

Barr oozed potential as a prospect in the 2014 draft. He was a converted running back who was just learning to play linebacker. His length was an issue for offensive linemen and his 4.60-second 40-yard dash suggested he could get to the quarterback in a hurry.

“[Barr is] a highly disruptive, athletic specimen with the pass-rush potential to effortlessly emerge as a double-digit sack producer,”’s Nolan Nawrocki said in a pre-draft scouting report. “[He’s] far from a finished product, and his best football is still ahead of him, yet he plays the game with more of an offensive temperament and could require some patience.”

Barr had all the tools to thrive in a 3-4 defense. But Ben Goessling, who was writing for ESPN at the time, said Zimmer saw those tools differently.

“As much as the Vikings had done for the first and last layers of Zimmer’s defense, they were still missing a key ingredient in the middle of the sandwich,” Goessling wrote shortly after the 2014 draft. “A speedy, disruptive linebacker who could blitz from the strongside position and hunt down running backs.

“Zimmer wanted one badly enough in his final year in Cincinnati that the Bengals signed former 3-4 linebacker James Harrison at age 35, put him on the strong side of their 4-3 defense, and asked him to perform many of the same functions he did in Pittsburgh’s 3-4 defense.”

By selecting him eighth overall, Barr could play a 4-3 style but still make the splash plays associated with a 3-4 linebacker. During his rookie year, he lived up to the hype, recording four sacks and securing a walk-off fumble return against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

Still, Barr never felt like an impact player in Zimmer’s defense. He never eclipsed the four sacks in his rookie year, but he still had his moments.

One of those impact games came against O’Connell’s Los Angeles Rams. While the rest of the team suffered from a Christmas hangover, Barr picked off Matthew Stafford twice and kept the Vikings in a lopsided game. Two weeks later, Barr recorded 11 tackles and a pair of sacks in the season finale against the Chicago Bears.

The ability was there for Barr. But it wouldn’t be surprising if he was another player that Zimmer treated like a Ferrari in a trailer park.

That’s where Ed Donatell’s scheme comes into play. Last season, Donatell got several linebackers to contribute to the Denver Broncos’ pass rush. Von Miller collected 4.5 sacks at 32, and Malik Reed was a rising contributor with five. Even Vikings castoff Stephen Weatherly recorded 2.5 sacks in nine games.

It seems like a situation that Barr could thrive in, and it was almost one Barr walked into in 2018.

Before getting cold feet, Barr was close to signing a free-agent deal with the New York Jets. Had he stayed, Barr could have been in a defense that saw Jordan Jenkins and Brandon Copeland combine for 12 sacks at the linebacker position. It’s safe to say Barr is a better athlete than both players and could have had an even more significant impact as a pass rusher.

Entering his age-30 season, it feels like a reunion between Barr and the Vikings makes sense. But it also comes with some risks.

Barr has the talent to succeed in any defense, but his knees are on borrowed time. After missing the first four games of the season, he never seemed to have confidence and insisted he needed to play at 100%. He missed a Week 13 loss to the Detroit Lions, but Barr eventually found his way. However, it could be a chronic issue from now on.

The Vikings would also have to figure out an affordable way to bring Barr back. His cap hit of $9.8 million further complicates Minnesota’s financial situation. The Vikings would be $24.5 million over the cap if they picked up Barr’s option.

But even if he comes at a premium, Barr might be worth it. The Vikings’ defense needs rebuilding. With several veterans hitting free agency, Minnesota can’t afford to let everyone go. That could open the door for Barr’s return and give the Vikings the sack machine many expected him to become.

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