NFL Draft

Finding Volunteers defensive end Derek Barnett’s ceiling

January 1, 2016: Tennessee Volunteers defensive end Derek Barnett (9) and Northwestern Wildcats offensive lineman Eric Olson (76) battle on the line of scrimmage during a game between the Northwestern Wildcats and Tennessee Volunteers at the Outback Bowl being held at Raymond James Stadium in Tampa FL. (Photo by Bryan Lynn/Icon Sportswire)
Bryan Lynn/Icon Sportswire

Few names in the draft community have burned brighter over the past month than Tennessee defensive lineman Derek Barnett. Barnett is a third-year starter for the Volunteers and has started 30 of his 33 career games as a member of the team. A hyper productive player, Barnett averages 0.79 sacks and 1.35 tackles for loss per game during his tenure. Barnett has been one of the stars of SEC play this season; his play has elevated in conference contests. Many personalities are now discussing Barnett as a potential top-10 selection should he declare. Is the hype warranted?

Strength and power is quickly evident

Entering the season I regarded Barnett’s strengths in functional power and hand explosiveness. Those strengths have not changed, although Barnett has evolved as a prospect since 2015. Below is a strong example of some of Barnett’s work at the point of attack.

There are a number of items of interest here. First and foremost, Barnett’s hand strength is evident on first contact. Watch how much bend Barnett is able to produce in the guard’s spine on that first punch. And when the ball is cut off his hip, Barnett easily extends to produce separation from his chest. Another important factor on a play such as this one is Barnett never concedes ground. Holding firm at the point of attack is even more vital at the NFL level, where backs can take small creases and churn out yardage. Holding uniformity along the line of scrimmage goes a long way in playing stout team defense against the run.

Added polish is making a difference in 2016

In spite of toting 20 career sacks entering his junior campaign, pass rush skills were not something many considered a strength. The defensive end historically has won with motor, power rushes and streaky play. Barnett tallied 8 of his 10 sacks as a freshman (2014) in a 4 week span against Mississippi, South Carolina and Kentucky. The consistency leveled out in 2015, as Barnett logged a sack in every week except for one over the final eight weeks of the season.

This year is a different story. There’s added polish here that is popping off the screen, demanding the attention of those watching.

Seeing the decisiveness and quickness in which Barnett pulls the trigger on this spin move is very encouraging. Even more encouraging than the fact that it’s a really, really good spin move. He is showing added signs this year of being cerebral with his rushes; playing the patented “game within the game”. Having the ability to set up counter moves later in the game or process over-sets from Offensive Tackles is going to open many more doors for Barnett as a pass rusher.

Athletic profile is good…but not great

Barnett is a plus college athlete. He’s able to drop in space on occasion and play a hidden role in zones to influence flat/slant areas of the field. He’s got enough get off to win from a wide nine alignment, which we’ve also seen this year. But I would argue that his overall athleticism is only above average forecasting to the NFL, and there lies the conflict in his projection. One mistake many make in evaluating pass-rushers is they mistake snap anticipation skills for explosiveness in the first step. Look how far ahead of his teammates Barnett is on the below pass rush:

Spoiler alert: Barnett is not *that* much more twitched up than his teammates. He does illustrate a very strong reaction time to release at the snap; but it isn’t necessarily lower body explosiveness. A good example of this from last year would be former Florida Gator Jon Bullard. Bullard’s first step was timed at the Combine at 1.66 seconds; only slightly above average when compared to the mean of 1.68 in my database of times (10+ years of data) for B-gap defenders (where he played in college). But in watching tape there are ample reps in which Bullard is equally far ahead of his teammates as you see from Barnett above.

Barnett’s functional mobility throughout his body is also leaving some doubt. He struggles to finish rushes when asked to turn the corner; this trait can be linked to a failure to produce the steep bend and lean on his rush track. This isn’t to say he can’t win as a rusher at the next level (it’s why I’m so highly encouraged by the added polish I’ve seen from his rush counters this year).

Finding a scheme fit

It’s still early. But assuming the junior Volunteer declares, we’ve seen 33 games from him; including seven strong efforts in 2016. It’s safe to say we have a firm handle on who he is at this point. I’d feel comfortable pulling the trigger on a player of Barnett’s caliber in the teens/early twenties. I don’t think he has the overall physical upside to be a premiere pass rusher. He’s going to be your reliable edge setter vs. the strong side of an offensive set and will give you 8-10 sacks a year if paired with other more athletic rushers; in my opinion. 4-3 defensive teams with athleticism along the interior would be strong fits. I view his upside similarly to former Dolphin and current Giant Olivier Vernon.

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