NFL teams want to love UCLA pass-rusher Anthony Barr. They just can't.
Dial the draft clock back to December or January, and Barr was one of the top prospects on the fictional mid-winter draft stock market. This was before people started really appreciating Buffalo pass-rusher Khalil Mack, Pittsburgh defensive tackle Aaron Donald and certainly before the Senior Bowl emergence of Auburn outside linebacker Dee Ford.
That's just at Barr's positional grouping. Throw in the rising stock of guys like Oklahoma State cornerback Justin Gilbert, Michigan offensive tackle Taylor Lewan, Texas A&M receiver Mike Evans and LSU receiver Odell Beckham Jr., and there's suddenly a bunch of people who could push Barr down into the 15-20 range rather than in the conversation for top pass-rusher and the top five picks.
That's a bit of an oversimplification of Barr's situation, though. Not only is each team's draft board going to be different—sometimes vastly different—but the needs of each and every team will likely put Barr into the conversation very early on.
The question teams have to ask is not where to draft Barr but rather when the doubts about him are finally outweighed by the answers he provides as a pass-rusher.
You Can't Teach Athleticism
Any time someone writes a scouting report, mock-draft scenario or a big-board blurb, Barr's athleticism has to be mentioned. It's not just the cherry on the top of the rhetorical sundae; it's the ice cream, chocolate sauce and banana too.
Recently, Bleacher Report columnist Dan Pompei wrote about former Oakland Raiders owner Al Davis and his well-documented obsession with the speed of the players he drafted. Yet, that obsession often involved the trade-off between style and substance.
For Barr, athleticism is the substance.
|Barr vs. Top Pass-Rushers at the Combine|
|Height, Weight||40 Time||Bench||3-Cone|
|Anthony Barr (UCLA)||6'5", 255||4.66||15||6.82|
|Khalil Mack (Buffalo)||6'3", 251||4.65||23||7.08|
|Jadeveon Clowney (S. Carolina)||6'6", 266||4.53||21||7.27|
|Ryan Shazier (Ohio State)||6'1", 237||4.38*||25||6.91|
|Dee Ford (Auburn)*||6'2", 252||4.59||29||7.07|
|NFL.com ( * indicates Pro Day)|
Where things might have gone wrong for Barr is at the NFL Scouting Combine. There, he was measured head-to-head against Mack and the rest of his peers. Though Barr didn't have a poor combine, he wasn't the tremendous athlete comparatively speaking that many might have expected.
In typical draft fashion, though, Barr not being the far-and-away best athlete has somehow been conflated into "well, he's not much of an athlete." He is big, fast and has the lateral quickness (as measured by his three-cone drill time of 6.82 seconds) that teams love to put in coverage.
There's plenty to question about his ability and overall skill level, but the crux of the issue here is that there's no way to turn some of the lesser athletes at the linebacker position into the same caliber of specimen as Barr. But teams might hope they can turn Barr into the type of polished linebacker that the other prospects promise.
Look, it's not true that "you can't teach speed." Hundreds of prospects learn all about speed right before the combine, and the landscape is littered with speed coaches who stress exactly that. You can teach speed, quite easily in fact, but fantastic physical freaks like Barr don't come along very often.
This draft class has a few of these guys, sure, but that doesn't change the fact that scouts still salivate over Barr's length, straight-line speed and agility.
Every coach believes he can take a guy like Barr and coach him up.
Pass-Rushers Are Always in Demand
Let's talk positional value.
We all know that this is a quarterback-driven league, right? I hope I'm not revealing any spoilers here for readers who have been asleep since the mid-1970s.
If we're talking about a quarterback-driven league, QBs are (logically) the most important players. A great quarterback can cover over a lot of other holes on a team's lineup. We can all pull out anecdotes of the Trent Dilfer-led Baltimore Ravens or the Pittsburgh Steelers with Ben Roethlisberger as a rookie, but it takes a really good team to make up for a subpar quarterback.
After that, the next most important positions are those involved with attacking the aforementioned franchise quarterback and protecting him, usually with left tackles.
Some teams focus on pass-rushers to get sacks and force errant throws. Others opt for strong coverage on the back end that leads to coverage sacks. However, last year proved that right tackles and guards are becoming highly valued as well.
As the league continues to be a passing league for the foreseeable future, pass-rushers aren't going to be any less in demand.
Last year, we saw elevated draft value for guys like Cleveland Browns linebacker Barkevious Mingo and Indianapolis Colts linebacker Bjoern Werner. The year before, it was Seattle Seahawks pass-rusher Bruce Irvin and Green Bay Packers linebacker Nick Perry.
This isn't just linebackers and ends moving up draft boards, it's guys whose best and brightest marketable skill is rushing the passer. Thumpers in the middle still have a place. Coverage linebackers aren't going anywhere—no one's saying any of that. It's a fact, though, that teams are looking for guys to harass passers.
One look at Barr's length and speed, and it's simple to see why teams looking for pass-rushers might covet him.
The interesting difference with pass-rushers when compared to most other positions is that there's no end to how many of them a team might need. Defensive tackles? At most, you put a couple on the field and then rotate them around a little bit. Safeties? You might need a third or fourth safety depending on your subpackages, but those better be special teams aces as well.
Pass-rushers? Gimme all of them.
A coach can find spots for pass-rushers. Not only can you rotate through them in order to wear down big offensive linemen, but you can also stack them and run sets with three or four of them on a line. (The New York Giants called that their NASCAR set.)
It's become almost vogue to bring guys in just for third down and give that role to a high draft pick like Irvin or Mingo.
It's possible to look at an offensive lineman, defensive tackle, middle linebacker, defensive back or a number of other positions and wonder, "Do we really need another one of those?" For a pass-rusher, that's never a question.
There's just no such thing as too many.
OK, but What Else Can You Do?
If the column ends here, everyone walks away thinking Barr is worth a top-three pick...or that I'm the captain of the Anthony Barr fan club. Neither of those is true, but neither is far from the truth either.
So often, the scouting community (media and team employees alike) hold out their hands like, "and...?"
That's a mistake.
Barr isn't the guy who most teams would want defending the run. He's not strong—go back and check out those bench-press numbers—and he doesn't have great instincts taking on blockers or diagnosing the play. As a tackler, he has decent but not great technique and relies on his athleticism more than his physicality.
Yet, at UCLA, he was able to cover up mistakes against the run with his athleticism. The NFL isn't the Pac-12, for sure, but there's a level at which quick-twitch lateral athleticism can make up for momentary mistakes is reading a play.
Barr isn't there, but he could be in a year or so.
And he said as much, telling Sports Illustrated's Chris Burke, "If a team gets me, if they like what they see, they’re going to love what they get because I’m just going to continue to get better."
In coverage, Barr's length gives him an advantage, but he's lost so often that it becomes a moot point. While his athleticism can make up for mistakes in coverage as well, it's a lot different to try and change direction on a guard than it is a slot receiver who happens to run a 4.4.
This takes us back to our original question: Why Barr and not another player in the top 10?
Can the things he does outweigh the things that he might not be able to do?
If Barr can rush the passer, the "other stuff" doesn't really matter. We want it to matter. We want the well-rounded super prospect, but that's not really how this whole draft thing works. Jadeveon Clowney is that type of guy, but not really that guy (at least not as a linebacker). Khalil Mack is close, but not quite there. Barr, Ryan Shazier and Dee Ford aren't even close, but they're not any further away than other top prospects in recent years.
So, in today's NFL, that changes the question.
Instead of asking what can't he do, the question is more appropriately phrased: How sure are we that you can do what we need you to do?
Let's be honest: If a designated pass-rusher can't cover or tackle, but we're all positive that he can rush the passer, any NFL team in their right mind will gladly draft him as high as they have a pick to do so.
By the same token, if the scouting community doubts a guy's pass-rushing chops but is sure he can do everything else at a high level, there's a chance he's not getting drafted very highly at all. Teams tend not to believe a player will learn to be an elite pass-rusher. The Seattle Seahawks tried that with Aaron Curry, and it was a horrible mistake.
That, more than anything else, is what makes Barr a puzzling prospect.
There's no room for error with him. He's either a pass-rushing threat or he's a constant reminder of what he could've been. A lot of what makes him great is measurable and a lot of what makes him maddening is correctable.
Some team is going to spend a high pick on Barr, and he's likely to reward that pick with good pass-rush productivity. But the chance he doesn't will keep a bunch of teams from pulling the trigger.
No other pick in the first round has that kind of range. Teams starting in the top five will be asking themselves whether he's the pick. If numerous teams say no, it shouldn't surprise anyone.
Then again, it shouldn't surprise anyone if most of those teams end up kicking themselves down the road.