By Russ Lande
Leading up to the Super Bowl, Sports on Earth is offering up an introduction to five players who we are confident will be selected within the top 10 picks of the 2014 NFL draft, including what NFL teams know about them and what they want to find out. We started on Monday with Buffalo defensive end/outside linebacker Khalil Mack; on Tuesday, we covered Louisville quarterback Teddy Bridgewater; and today we evaluate UCLA defensive end/outside linebacker Anthony Barr.
With only two years of experience playing on defense, Anthony Barr's development into one of the premier defenders in the nation is remarkable.
After evaluating six games from the 2013 season, I emerged both tantalized by his raw physical talent, yet frustrated by his inconsistent production during each game. A quick-twitch athlete, Barr flashes a rare first step off the ball to get to the corner before the offensive tackle can set up. When he maintains knee bend, he can turn the corner sharply and close on the quarterback in a flash once he clears the blocker. Uncommon for a pass rusher with so little game experience, Barr can be outstanding using his hands to chop the pass blocker's hands away so that he can stay free. Although he usually is facing an offensive tackle that outweighs him by 50-plus pounds, when he maintains leverage and rushes the passer aggressively, he shows surprising ability to jolt and drive his man backwards into the quarterback's lap.
This natural strength also enables him to anchor and maintain contain responsibility against offensive line run blocks when he plays with leverage and uses his hands well. When he does this, he flashes the ability to shed blocks and make tackles on runs to his side of the field. Even more impressive, when he lines up a little off the line, he has the ability to burst up the field, avoid run blocks and make tackles behind the line of scrimmage. Although his technique dealing with low/cut blocks and working through traffic needs work, he has elite playing speed chasing after ball carriers in pursuit and the rare closing burst to finish plays most linebackers have no chance to make.
While Barr has shown the physical skills to be a dominant defensive playmaker, scouts definitely have concerns about his play. His lack of experience on defense is readily apparent in many areas, but none more so than his pass-rush repertoire. Relying heavily on his explosiveness off the ball and speed to out-race blockers around the corner, he has no real variety of pass-rush moves. Scouts confirmed to me that for a top pass rusher too often he gets high when rushing the passer and needs to be more consistent maintaining bend/leverage, because when he does he is drastically more effective. Scouts have seen him pass rush aggressively and with leverage, so they want to figure out if his inconsistencies in this area are due to his lack of experience or effort.
Most concerning to scouts is Barr's inconsistent production on running plays at him. No one doubts that he has the talent to play strong at the point of attack, shed blocks and make plays, but more often he takes on run blocks high, is slow to shed and gets ridden out of the play.
Working in Barr's favor is his outstanding character, work ethic and leadership. When combined with the improvement he has made since he switched to defense in 2012, the future looks very bright. However, he will need to impress during the interview process when teams grill him on defensive schemes and adjustments, as this will be his chance to prove he has a complete grasp of what his responsibilities will be, despite his lack of experience playing defense.
After all the evaluating, Barr will almost assuredly be a top-10 pick in the 2014 draft. Right now he would be a good pass-rushing outside linebacker, and if he becomes more consistent in the areas scouts have concerns about, he could become a great player who changes games like Lawrence Taylor did from his outside linebacker alignment. When you look at his combination of elite athleticism, great character, work ethic and leadership, I'm confident that he will improve enough to become a top NFL player.