Time to ‘Let it Loose’ for Derek Barnett
PHILADELPHIA (973espn.com) - Managing an NFL roster is essentially a cost-benefit analysis and the Eagles moved on from two very productive veteran players in Michael Bennett and Chris Long in order to pave a path for the younger edge players in the team, a group headlined by 2017 first-round pick Derek Barnett.
Everything was going to plan for Barnett, 23, for his first two seasons, a rookie campaign as a nickel rusher which ended up with a Super Bowl ring on his first try and a starting job by Year 2 until a shoulder injury derailed that sophomore campaign at just six games.
His absence opened up repetitions for Bennett and Long last season but the plan for Barnett to be the starter at RDE along with the acquisition of Malik Jackson inside had the Eagles spinning off Bennett to New England and informing Long his desired role as a nickel pass rusher would likely be no longer available.
There is quite a bit of context in the previous paragraph but on the surface, Barnett is expected to produce to help offset the losses on proven veteran players.
Despite the expectations, Barnett is taking things in stride.
“I don’t think there’s a lot on me,” Barnett said in the Eagles’ locker from Thursday after the first practice of the summer. “Every time I step on the field, I want to perform my best and be the best player I can be for my teammates because they drafted me [in the first round] for a reason."
In many Barnett was out of sight, out of mind for many who quickly forgot his production in key moments during the Super Bowl role, namely the strip-sack in the NFC Championship Game and his Johnny-on-the-spot recovery of Brandon Graham's own franchise defining strip-sack in Super Bowl LII.
"Our expectations are high [for Barnett]," defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz said Friday. "He has rewarded us for that. Made a lot of really key plays, particularly down the stretch his rookie year. I think about the sack strip against Minnesota when they were driving. They had a chance to tie the game at halftime. Instead, we strip it, score, we get the ball back quick, and score again, and all of a sudden, the party was on.
"He's made a lot of plays for us. Was playing really at a high-level last year before he got hurt. I don't think expectations have changed. We expect a lot from our all guys. He's a key component to that."
A natural pass rusher with a bend All-Pro right tackle Lane Johnson has compared to Von Miller, Barnett has 8 1/2 sacks in 24 NFL games [including playoffs] with two forced fumbles. Added reps should mean increased production and Barnett is not sweating any of the projections.
“When I step on the field, I feel like I have to perform well. Don’t get me wrong. But pressure-wise? No, there’s no pressure," he insisted. "You just trust your training, go out there, and let it loose.”
What kept Barnett from letting it loose last season was a torn rotator cuff. He was producing as Schwartz said, putting together 2 1/2 sacks and four tackles for loss in the first four games when the injury occurred. He attempted to sit out a week and play through the injury but after two attempts in which Barnett was obviously limited the Eagles decided the prudent decision would be to shut him down.
“I just couldn’t really keep on playing and the best thing long-term was to get it fixed and get it behind me,” Barnett assessed.
His downtime was marred by tragedy when Barnett's older brother David died in a car accident back in Nashville last December. David Barnett was just 33 when a drunk driver crossed into oncoming traffic and struck him head-on.
“My personal life, my personal issues are my personal but when I come here it’s strictly football, strictly business,” Derek insisted.
Keeping busy can help many in the grieving process and Barnett is slowing working his way back as a limited participant in practice, working mainly in individual drills as Vinny Curry keeps his RDE spot warm.
"It's good to have him back, even though he's limited in what he's done so far," Schwartz said. "It's good to get him back on the field. He'll be a big contributor this year."
-John McMullen covers the Eagles and the NFL for 973espn.com. You can reach him at email@example.com or on Twitter @JFMcMullen