The intangibles that make Vikings linebacker Anthony Barr a coveted teammate and sounding board for coaches gain importance as the 29-year-old Pro Bowler recently came to the realization he's "one of the older dudes now" in a locker room under transformation.
To avoid being the latest longtime Vikings defender shown the door this spring, Barr accepted a $2.9 million pay cut in a restructured contract that sets up what could be his final season in Minnesota. He can now become a free agent in 2022. Barr said he agreed to the pay cut to ensure his last Vikings play wasn't a September tackle resulting in a season-ending torn pectoral muscle.
"I kind of didn't want to go out like that," said Barr, a three-time team captain. "I didn't want my last game being the one in which I got hurt and then missing an entire year. I didn't want that to be my last memory as a Minnesota Viking, so that played a big factor in returning and taking the pay cut to be back with this organization."
His Vikings tenure, entering its eighth season, has had ups and downs, including anchoring a No. 1-ranked defense in 2017, four Pro Bowl appearances, and head coach Mike Zimmer throwing both public bouquets and a 2016 jab that Barr has a "tendency to coast" in games.
After a tumultuous season without Barr and other key defenders, the flowers are blooming again. Barr is often referenced in the same breath as defensive end Danielle Hunter and linebacker Eric Kendricks as recently injured defenders whom Zimmer says he needs at full health to restore last year's 27th-ranked group. Zimmer called the unit his "worst" in his 21st season coordinating NFL defenses. Barr, the team's first draft pick in the Zimmer era, trails only safety Harrison Smith for most defensive starts among current players in a Vikings uniform.
"He was missed everywhere," Zimmer said. "He's tremendously smart. We always have a lot of different packages for him, things that he can do differently where a lot of players can't do that. But not only that, he's a terrific leader and guys respect him in the locker room."
"He's a guy that can communicate to me in kind of where things are or if I need to adjust things or change things up a little bit," Zimmer added. "He's a really important part of our football team."
Vikings coaches are tinkering with "different looks" for Barr in the playbook this offseason to update how they deploy the eighth-year linebacker, co-defensive coordinator Adam Zimmer said. They also praise his presence in an otherwise inexperienced linebacker room behind Barr and Kendricks, with Barr sitting next to second-year linebacker Blake Lynch in meeting rooms as Lynch learns the position.
"There's so many things he does for us that go unnoticed by maybe the common fan," Adam Zimmer said. "He's our signal-caller and makes all the checks for us. And he's extremely smart. He did something the other day and I looked over at the rest of the linebackers and said, 'Did you see him do that? That's really smart right there.' Just leading by example."
Barr said he's looking forward to a "fresh start" for the Vikings defense, restocked with free-agent signings all around him in defensive tackle Dalvin Tomlinson, cornerbacks Patrick Peterson and Mackensie Alexander, and safety Xavier Woods. Nose tackle Michael Pierce is also participating in his first Vikings practices this spring after opting out in 2020. Expectations on defense have returned to the standard that Barr helped establish.
"Last year was tough for a number of reasons," Barr said. "Obviously missed playing, missed being with the guys, but I think it was a year of learning and reflection, and I'm looking forward to this next year. I think we have some high expectations and high hopes, and we've got kind of a fresh start."
Due to the NFL's COVID restrictions last season, which kept players apart when away from team facilities and limited traveling parties for road games, injured reserve was an even more isolating place for players like Barr, who said he had a lot of time to think while watching his Vikings teammates play on television. Barr said he felt the weight of both football and societal issues, and emerged with appreciation.
"I just learned what my priorities are in life," Barr said. "Last year was a good year, like I said, [as] a reflection, but it was isolation. I wasn't allowed to attend meetings. I wasn't allowed to attend games. I came in, did my rehab, and went home. That was kind of the extent of my day for six months."
"It was difficult given that and the state of the world," he added, "with the senseless killings of unarmed Black people to the coronavirus and just the isolation. I think all of that kind of took its toll, but I was able to reflect and realize I'm very blessed and still very fortunate to be in this situation that I am, and to take advantage of the time, because it's precious and it's fleeting. I'm much more appreciative, I guess, of my situation."