Anthony Barr is earning $12.3 million this season, on a fifth-year option that’s worth so much because the Vikings selected him ninth overall in the 2014 draft.
The Vikings made Barr their first player picked in the Mike Zimmer era, out of a belief the 6-5 linebacker could become an unrivaled terror in their defense. He’s made three Pro Bowls in his first four seasons, and will earn more money than any other 4-3 outside linebacker in the league this season. Still, as Barr inches closer to free agency in March, questions remain about whether he will be the next defender the Vikings lock up with a long-term deal.
If what the team is doing with Barr this summer works, his price could be on the rise. But if the Vikings’ latest plan turns the 26-year-old into what the Vikings have always believed he could become, a massive contract could be nothing more than a necessary cost of doing business.
The Vikings began training camp by continuing a habit they developed this spring, sending Barr over to work with defensive line coach Andre Patterson’s group during individual pass-rushing drills. There, he works on his technique among three players — Everson Griffen, Linval Joseph and Danielle Hunter — who have snared lucrative deals under Patterson’s tutelage. An uptick in Barr’s pass-rushing productivity could make him the next one to get paid.
Barr had four sacks as a rookie, but his numbers have dropped each season as the Vikings made marginal reductions in how often they sent Barr after the quarterback and offenses adjusted their approach to him, blocking him with a lineman more often than a running back. Last season, Barr rushed the quarterback on a career-low 16.7 percent of his snaps, according to Pro Football Focus, and had just one sack.
“I want him to learn to be a technician as a pass rusher, and I think that’s the thing that’s the hardest transition in this league,” Patterson said. “In college, you come in, and a lot of times, you’re a better athlete than the offensive lineman who’s trying to block you. So you could just win off your athletic ability. The O-linemen in this league are too good. You have to be correct with your rush angles, correct with your hands, know what to do when you get to the contact point.”
Though the Vikings could use Barr as a down lineman, either to add a wrinkle to their defense or provide another pass rushing option in case of injury, his work with Patterson appears more geared toward helping him become more efficient when he’s standing up. Even as Barr blitzes in conjunction with the Vikings’ defensive front, he’d benefit from a more detailed rush plan and a larger repertoire of counter moves to use against an offensive lineman.
“Besides some of the technique stuff, it’s feeling comfortable going against bigger, stronger guys,” coach Mike Zimmer said. “That’s probably the main thing. Sometimes when he rushed against some of the offensive linemen, I wouldn’t say he didn’t have a plan, but he’d get in a certain position and then didn’t know how to react to it or finish it. We’re trying to put him in those situations as much as possible so that he can understand what he has to do when he gets to that spot.”
Zimmer approached Patterson this spring with the idea of giving Barr more time with the defensive linemen. He’s spent time in defensive line meetings, analyzing Griffen and Hunter’s pass-rushing tapes and listening to Patterson outline the importance of using different rush approaches based on how deep an offensive lineman is setting. Barr also continues to work with Shawn Myszka, the Minneapolis-based movement coach who has helped hone Griffen’s game over the past several years.
On Monday, Barr went through individual rush drills and hand-fighting work with the defensive linemen, before joining the group for one-on-one drills against the offensive linemen in the Vikings’ first padded practice.
“I have great examples in front of me, watching Everson, Danielle, B-Rob [Brian Robison],” Barr said last week. “Those guys have done it at a high level for some years now, so they’re great teammates, great teachers and I’m excited to learn from them.”
Barr skipped the Vikings’ first organized team activity while finalizing an insurance policy on his 2018 contract, and though it’s possible the Vikings could sign him at any point, he’s headed into the final year of his deal at this point. If he puts together a 10-sack season, it’ll undoubtedly raise his market value heading into free agency.
But if they feel Barr is putting it all together, it’s hard to imagine the Vikings letting him leave.
“As a D-line coach, you look at the way Everson and Danielle can accelerate off the ball, the way they can bend and their explosive power,” Patterson said. “Those combinations are hard to find, and Anthony has that. It’s not like you’re taking someone who doesn’t have the skill set that position needs. He has the skill set to be able to do what those guys do on an every-down basis. Now it’s a matter of teaching him, coaching him and letting him get comfortable with it.”