Futures: UCLA OLB Anthony Barr

Futures: UCLA OLB Anthony Barr
Futures: UCLA OLB Anthony Barr
Photo: USA Today Sports Images

by Matt Waldman

Which one is not like the others? Aldon Smith. Dion Jordan. Anthony Barr. If you ask Nebraska Offensive Line Coach John Garrison or NFL.com’s Daniel Jeremiah, they’ll tell you Barr is stylistically similar to both players. While Jeremiah polled five NFL Execs with a question specifically framed to link Jordan and Barr, there are people in the NFL who see the outside linebacker from UCLA as a different style of player than the Dolphins’ rookie.

A current NFL employee who has worked with several teams in the player-personnel scouting arena doesn’t see the Barr-Jordan comparison as an accurate one.

"Barr is a bit of an enigma at this point, but a very gifted athlete. I like the versatility he shows. It's hard to think of him as anything but a strong first-round prospect. At the same time he’s a tough read; definitely not cut and dried as to where he'll fit best in the NFL. He was very raw last year and isn’t the same athlete as Dion Jordan," he says, explaining that the 6-foot-3 Barr lacks the length and height of the 6-foot-6 Jordan. "I don’t see the same ceiling that Jordan has as a rusher, but Barr is more versatile and very capable of playing [outside linebacker] in the 3-4 at a high level. As far as body types and skill-sets, they’re pretty different. I think Barr is closer to a raw Clay Matthews or Brian Orakpo type."

If a college player earns a first-round grade from NFL scouts based on junior film it usually means there’s a strong case he could be a top-10 pick. This is the case for Barr, who made the switch from fullback to linebacker last year and had an eye-catching rookie season at the position:

  • 82 tackles
  • 21 tackles for loss
  • 14 sacks
  • 4 forced fumbles
  • 4 hurries
  • 5 passes defensed

These are good numbers for a player who still has a lot to learn about the techniques and concepts of playing his new position. One of the big reasons is speed. This is what Smith, Jordan, and Barr have in common.

It’s also the reason why this NFL employee doesn’t agree with Executive No.5 in Jeremiah’s August poll about Barr-Jordan that states, "Barr by far. He’s much stronger, and he’s not a one-trick pony. Jordan relies solely on speed."

"Seriously? Do sacks obtained by speed count less? Does pressure from speed count less?" says this NFL personnel man, who believes that the threat of elite edge speed makes all moves better. "Jason Pierre-Paul is making a living based on elite speed and a handful of average to slightly above-average pass rush moves. He’s who Jordan resembles as a rusher and whose successes he should emulate. It's not as if elite edge speed comes along every day; you’ve got to take it where you can find it."

Barr is a great example of the idea that draft-day value and skill are two different things. There is an intersection of athleticism and positional acumen where teams will err on the side of drafting an NFL athlete who never becomes an effective player because he doesn’t learn the nuances of his position fast enough to have a productive NFL career: Mike Mamula, Vernon Gholston, Aundray Bruce, and Aaron Maybin immediately come to mind. Jerry Hughes? The TCU star and recent acquisition of the Bills will have a second chance to prove worthy of the first-round pick the Colts spent on him, but history is against him.

But let’s not just pick on those who drool over workouts; the NFL also errs on the side of production and position-based skill over physical talent. Vinny Curry, Mike Junkin, Quentin Coryatt, and Andy Katzenmoyer are examples of linebackers with great college production but underwhelming NFL stints. In the case of Katzenmoyer and Curry, their college production and understanding of the position was outstripped by the physical potential of other players in their draft classes.

Players with the right balance of physical talent, technical skill, and willingness to work tend to make the most of their opportunities. While the jury is still out on Raiders quarterback Terrelle Pryor, the former Ohio State star who says he didn’t know how to throw a football when he entered the NFL, he has worked hard at his craft. It's shown as he's demonstrated a much-improved release, footwork, and physical placement of the football in tight windows this summer and early fall. The conceptual aspects of quarterbacking will have to get better for him to develop into a quality long-term starter, but Pryor is a good current example of a player who appears to be in that sweet spot.

Patriots wide receiver Julian Edelman is another. The former Kent State quarterback is the Patriots passing offense after two weeks in September. But neither Edelman nor Pryor was a first-round pick.

This is where Barr presents a heightened risk for NFL teams who consider the outside linebacker in April. Is the glass half-full or half-empty proposition after just one season at the position? Walter Football’s Charlie Campbell does a fine job of highlighting the optimistic aspects of Barr and Buffalo Bills Draft Staff Writer Joe Marino does an equally good job of explaining the flaws in Barr’s game.

Draft Analysis provides a strong visual overview:

What do I think of Barr? I’m still making up my mind. I love the speed. This example of him pursuing and catching Colorado’s quarterback after he’s fooled on play-action is a good example of determination that you want from a football player. I also like that he flashes the flexibility to bend around the corner with a tackle on him to "arc" to the passer off the edge. Barr needs to refine this skill and develop more techniques with his hands, but Orakpo has displayed limited technique as a pass rusher and has been a moderate success in Washington.

One of the main differences between Barr and Orakpo at this point is strength, but Barr has the frame to add the muscle and explosive athleticism to do what Orkapo does well. The added muscle should also help him get better at shedding blockers and making plays.

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While Joe Marino has concerns about Barr’s power and technique as a tackler, I’m not as concerned. I think Barr is a natural hitter and with another year of focus on technique and adding muscle to his frame those worries will be temporary. What concerns me most about Barr is his conceptual understanding of the position.

The video above provides ample evidence of Barr misdiagnosing run angles and exchanges between the quarterback and running back. As Marino writes, Barr is a more of a "see and chase" defender than a "read and react" linebacker. In college football where the gap in speed and athleticism is much wider than the NFL, this gets the job done enough for him to perform as an 82-tackle, 21-tackle-for-a-loss performer. Next year? Good luck seeing the field as anything more than a third-down pass rusher with that style of play if there isn’t diagnostic improvement.

It means I’m revisiting Barr in December before I make a call, but he’s worth discussion now because Barr’s gifts underscore the NFL’s demand for game-changing players. If a team can draft a player like Barr hoping for him to achieve Clay Matthews’ upside but settle for Brian Orakpo, it’s a good first-round investment.

If I had to take a stand on Barr today I’d agree with this assessment. However, the silent names looming in an evaluator’s nightmares are specters no one wants to utter: Mamula, Bruce, Maybin, and Gholston.


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