The last time the Packers defense featured a No. 55, he was a bruising, hard-charging inside ‘backer reminiscent of a by-gone era in defense. In the old days (days that aren’t even that old), 3-4 defenses loved to have players like Desmond Bishop who could fly downhill, attack ball carriers and pressure quarterbacks. Even Mike Pettine just a few years ago used guys like Bart Scott, once an A-plus interior blitzer, to terrorize quarterbacks. But as defenses evolved to meet the burgeoning rise of spread offenses, coaches countered with more mobile cover players at linebacker. Pettine played safeties by trade next to Blake Martinez last season more than half the time.
What if the Packers could get both? A No. 55 for the modern era, someone who could play the run, cover in space, and had the athletic traits to be a pass rusher. Maybe someone who was a blue-chip pass-rush prospect coming out of college who ended up playing out of position in the pros. And perhaps he has a somewhat sordid past with the Packers thanks to a borderline hit on Aaron Rodgers that cost him his season.
Yes, that No. 55: Anthony Barr. But don’t play him inside. Let him return to his natural position flying off the edge and hunting opposing quarterbacks.
When Mike Zimmer decided Barr was an off-ball linebacker rather than a primary pass rusher, it was legitimately shocking. How could he take a player with 21.5 sacks and 41.5 tackles for loss his last two years at UCLA and not let him pin his ears back? At 6-foot-5, 255 pounds, he had freak athletic tools to do it even if he was raw with his technique. His first-step quickness was and is outstanding, posting a 1.56 10-yard split which is good for the 94th percentile among edge players. His 3-cone is in the 97th percentile and his shuttle is 91st.
Believing Barr could play linebacker wasn’t a stretch. Clearly he was athletic enough to do it, but it’s like buying a Ferrari to go to the grocery store. Sure, it will do the job, but that’s not what it’s designed to do. Plus, everyone delivers now.
And early in his career in particular, Barr flourished in the role earning four straight trips to the Pro Bowl. Even if he gave the Packers very little in Year 1 as a pass rusher, he’d be worth the $10 million to 12 million a top off-ball linebacker would earn in free agency.
If there’s one thing the Packers defense lacks, it’s athletic playmakers. Enter Barr, with his length, change of directions skills, and burst. Watch him here shuck the wideout, run with him to the inside, then change directions and explode to the quarterback.
Is there a player currently on the Packers athletically capable of doing this? Forget the horse collar tackle, it happens. Barr can be grabby as a tackler. But how many times have mobile quarterbacks made Packer edge players and linebackers look silly with their lack of speed? That’s not going down with Barr back there.
Teams have consistently been able to beat Green Bay’s defense with misdirection because the squad simply doesn’t have the players to make up when they read things wrong initially. There’s not enough explosiveness to direct and go find the ball. That’s where Barr excels. Here, he gets fooled to the inside, but has the agility to stick his foot in the ground and the burst to go find the QB to try and disrupt the throw.
Moving to the edge, could he hold up as a run defender? This is a relevant question if for no other than than we haven’t seen him take on blocks out there very often. But there are reasons to believe he can do it. This example comes against Green Bay where he takes on the block of Corey Linsley and sheds him easily to make the stop:
Linsley trips, but Barr had won the rep by keeping Linsley off his body and stayed detached. He consistently shows toughness and a little nasty taking on these kinds of blocks. There’s no reason he couldn’t do it on the edge with his length and upper body strength.
His athleticism also shows up in the run game. In the prime of Clay Matthews’ career, teams decided to leave him unblocked on the backside at their own risk. Matthews would run backs down in the backfield regularly. No one needs Pro Football Focus to tell us that doesn’t happen anymore with him. Barr not only has the juice to do it, he has the quickness to beat a blocker to the inside from the snap and make a play down the line.
He won’t be facing tight ends on every snap, but if he’s too quick off the snap for an athletic player, imagine what it’ll be like for a 315-pound offensive tackle. Seattle’s Ed Dickson is no slouch either and Barr beats him first with quickness and then strength.
This could be the end. A multiple Pro Bowl linebacker who size, speed, and impact tackling ability is worth paying top dollar for in Green Bay. But the pass rush upside should be the element to sell the Packers on ponying up the dough for their former nemesis.
As Andy Herman at CheeseheadTV points out, Barr rarely beats offensive linemen to get his sacks. But he also rarely gets to rush the passer in a traditional sense. Nearly everything he does is off the blitz, a very similar type of A-gap mug blitz scheme Pettine runs. For starters, that’s not a problem because he’s really good at it.
In 2018, only two players had a higher pressure rate when rushing the passer than Barr. In fact, Barr put up as many pressures (23) as Kyler Fackrell in fewer than half the pass rush snaps. Fackrell turned 27 last season when he had his breakout year and Barr is 26 right now. Over his career, Barr has never been outside the top-20 in linebacker pressures and was in the top 10 four times. Even if all he’s capable of is being one of the five best blitzing linebackers in the NFL, that is a considerable value add.
When he comes off the edge, he does it with bad intentions for the quarterback, bringing his 4.66 40 to bear. Even if he doesn’t get home, his height and length can disrupt passing lanes.
This is a good time to point out sacks aren’t everything when it comes to production. Disruption is production. Pressuring the quarterback, tipping a pass, hitting him after he throws it, these are all ways to be productive without sacking the quarterback. With closing speed like his, he could be a monster with more reps.
Pettine loves to run overload blitzes where offensive lines aren’t sure who is coming and who isn’t. He’ll mix in a twist or stunt just to add in a layer of complexity. There are precisely the circumstances where Barr thrives.
Not a sack, but he forces the overthrow from Russell Wilson. Notice how fast he closes down space and takes care not to make unnecessary contact with the quarterback, avoiding a flag. This isn’t a pressure Clay Matthews or Nick Perry would get. They’re just not twitchy enough anymore.
Even if Pettine has to treat Barr like a receiver who has to be schemed open, when those opportunities come, Barr will crush them. Blake Martinez posted a similar pressure rate to Barr’s last season in just 84 opportunities. Imagine Martinez and Barr each standing over the center while the quarterback tries to figure out who is coming and who isn’t.
It doesn’t take going back to UCLA to find glimmers of the edge terror Barr could be become either. Minnesota would put him out there and get him matched on tight ends or running backs.
Barr discards Kenyan Drake right into the quarterback and then gets the sack. It’s not beating an NFL lineman, but the burst, ability to corner and then retrace to the quarterback are traits the Packers are looking for in rookie pass rushers. In some ways, that’s how he has to be treated given how little he’s been able to do it as a pro.
The question about his ability to win on his own around the edge shouldn’t be dismissed. Here’s one of the few reps he has taking on a block, in this case against one of the best left tackles in football.
Barr’s approach here smacks of a player lacking confidence in these situations. The shimmy is more token than anything and robs him of any chance to convert speed to power. He does well to eventually get Andrew Whitworth’s hands off him, but the ball is long gone by then. The Packers would have to hope new linebackers coach Mike Smith could do the same thing for Barr he did for guys like Dee Ford, helping him improve his technique to unlock his potential.
In half a dozen games from 2018 and 2017, there were only a handful of snaps, no more than five, where he was actually asked to go beat an offensive lineman. That’s one reason he hasn’t had to beat offensive linemen for any of his 13.5 career sacks. But let’s put that number into some perspective. Dee Ford led the league in pressures last year but saw 626 pass rush snaps last season to Barr’s 103 and 60 more than Barr has in his entire career (566).
Even if every single one of those sacks had to be schemed up, I don’t think any Packer fan would think twice about it being a win. The question will be price, but even if all Barr can be is a versatile linebacker who can cover, make some plays in the run game, and maximize his blitz opportunities, that’s a $10 million-plus player in the NFL today. Given that floor of impact, it makes much more sense to pay him in that $12 million to 14 million range to be a jack-of-all trades Sam linebacker than to fork over the $14 million to 16 million it may take to get Preston or Za’Darius Smith. As long as Rodgers and his collarbone sign off, it’s an opportunity for the Packers to improve multiple areas of their team in one move.