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Derek Barnett is one move away from NFL greatness

Retired NFL defensive end Stephen White says the Tennessee pass rusher could end up being one of the most productive in the draft this year, with just one more move in his toolkit.

NCAA Football: Tennessee Tech at Tennessee Randy Sartin-USA TODAY Sports

At the end of my breakdown of Myles Garrett, I mentioned Derek Barnett, whom I had occasion to watch a lot of because I played for Tennessee and therefore still follow the team. I didn't watch most of his games live the last two years because I thought I was a jinx for a while. I would DVR the games and watch them the next morning.

And maybe, at times, I take these kinds of things way too seriously. [Shrugs]

I will say that after I stopped watching live, my quality of life improved tremendously. My blood pressure was lower, and I was in a much better mood overall from week to week. I don't think I'm ever going to go back to watching the games live so long as Butch Jones is still the coach.

But, I digress.

Barnett was one of the few projected first-round picks who I was already pretty familiar with. I had seen repeatedly what this guy was capable of doing since he was a freshman.

However, there's still a huge difference between watching the day after a game for my own edification and actually breaking down the tape to assess Barnett's potential as an NFL prospect. So I was looking forward to seeing how my perception of Barnett's skills might change after taking a closer look.

Barnett's ability to bend as he turned the corner as a pass rusher is special, possibly better than Garrett's as I said in that breakdown. As they are wont to do, folks took issue with that statement, so I decided to start off this breakdown by showing my work, so to speak. Here’s Barnett hitting that gangster lean as he wins an edge rush:

And a few more: Against Alabama, Florida, and Texas A&M.

You folks who were big mad after you read the Garrett breakdown, can we touch and agree that I was actually right, at least about Barnett's lean, and keep it moving?

I'll tell you straight out that I prefer Barnett to Garrett as a football player. However, I can definitely see why some talent evaluators may favor Garrett as a prospect because when you look at his combine workout and his measurables, Garrett's ceiling is sky high. Barnett's workout numbers weren't quite as impressive.

But when I watched Barnett's tape, his performance made me catch the holy ghost a few times. (If you are Southern and/or country you will definitely get this reference.) I never got the same feeling watching Garrett.

Do I think that Barnett is a "perfect" prospect? I wouldn't go that far.

There are a few things that I think he could improve on in the NFL that could make him into an even more dominant player; things that he really needs to work on if he wants to become a superstar on the next level.

He needs to develop a better second inside move

Barnett’s situation reminds me of a guy we had here in Tampa by the name of Stylez White, no relation (Uncle Rukus voice). Stylez had a real knack for turning the corner even though he wasn't blazing fast. The problem was that Stylez only had a hump move as a counter, and it’s hard as hell to try to win repeatedly with a hump move. He never developed a second counter-inside move, and I believe it held him back during his career.

Barnett has one decent inside move. I call it a reach-through, where Barnett takes two steps upfield, swats the tackles' hand as he steps inside with his inside foot, and reaches through on a quick arm-over with his outside arm around the elbow of the tackle's inside arm and steps through with his outside foot:

He may not have the same kind of success with that move in the pros because it works best after you force the tackle to start bailing, looking for a speed rush. Barnett won a lot with his edge rushes in college with good get off, hip turn, hand work and lean, but not with straight speed. And it’s usually that crazy speed that gets NFL tackles bailing out. Even if Barnett is good winning around the edge (and I think he will be), that doesn't mean he will get tackles to jump out enough to open themselves up to that kind of quick inside move.

He needs to develop a late spin as a countermove to his speed rushes. Here’s why.

When he realizes he can't beat a tackle around the corner and is about to get pushed deep, opening up lanes for the quarterback to scramble, he can dip with his inside shoulder to get the tackle to lurch forward and step through with his inside foot to set up the pivot.

Then he can push off his outside foot and swing his outside arm around to give him the momentum he needs to finish the spin by using his outside elbow to knock the tackle by and to keep him upright so Barnett can have a clean win at or near the level of the quarterback.

Was that confusing at all? It's much easier for me to show a guy how to do a late spin move than it is to explain it.

If he can develop an inside spin move, it will force left tackles to play him honest instead of bailing out to make it harder for him to turn the corner.

Right now, Barnett's spin moves are hot garbage.

The one spin move I saw that did work was when Barnett faked inside and then spun back outside. That's a move I used in the pros — ask Kurt Warner — so I have to say I was impressed.

The key to a spin move working well is selling a speed rush at first. That means everything has to look like a speed rush to the tackle.

It was blatant that Barnett was spinning away before he ever planted with the inside foot. He was just going through the motions of a speed rush to try to get to the spinning part of the move.

That’s a common mistake for young defensive linemen. I was blessed to be able to watch guys like Chuck Smith and Todd Kelly do spin moves the correct way while I was in college and learn from watching them kill fools while I was still riding the bench. With just a little bit of coaching, Barnett could end up being great at it.

(Somebody tell him that Chuck Smith, another fellow #VFL, is an excellent teacher of spin moves.)

If Barnett can get that late spin move down, most NFL tackles are going to have a helluva time trying to block him one-on-one. With the late spin, he can get clean wins against blockers. Quarterbacks will end up drifting into his waiting arms thinking he is way upfield and no longer a threat.

Without it, his coaches will be pulling their hair out watching him run 10 yards upfield while the quarterback is breaking the pocket and slicing up the secondary. Aaron Rodgers would be licking his chops!

I can't say that for sure if someone will teach him that. There are a lot more shitty defensive line coaches in the NFL than most folks want to admit. He has the physical tools to easily come up with a better countermove, but I’m not going to take it for granted that he will. I have to hold that as a knock against him ... for now.

Stop jumping offsides

I am also concerned about some of the offsides penalties Barnett committed, but only because once I got to the pros, Rod Marinelli didn't allow us to jump offsides.

He drilled it into us every day to get a "credit card" alignment with the football and to get off without guessing. I'm not going to say that Barnett was definitely guessing snap counts a lot, as many of his best rushes came on the road, but that's usually what jumping offsides a lot points to.

On the flip side, I do know that not every defensive line coach Marinelli, so for them jumping offsides a few times might not be that big of a deal. Especially if you are getting more than your fair share of sacks and pressures on other plays and forcing the offensive tackles to commit false starts from time to time as well.

Both of those requirements apply to Barnett in the games that I watched.

For most teams, his jumping offsides will be a small issue, not a huge knock. I know from experience that with a good defensive line coach, it’s something he can correct in short order.

That is about the extent of my complaints about Barnett's tape, however. The kid is pretty damned good, otherwise.

What position should Barnett play?

Well, there is one other thing, but I'm not exactly sure that it’s a knock. I'm not 100 percent sure what Barnett's best position would be, mostly because I see a diverse skill set.

He has shorter arms at 32 1/8 inches, but he also plays with good hand technique and good leverage. I'm not sure how many reps Barnett is going to put up with 225 on the bar, if he ever actually does it, but you can see the kid has enough strength to get the job done in the trenches.

I saw him line up in a six technique over tight ends, and he did a good job with that. He does not play afraid. Barnett will definitely stick his nose in there when a kickout block or a puller is coming his way, and he stands his ground against base blocks. I'm not worried about him as a run defender at all, no matter where you put him on the edge.

In contrast with Garrett, Barnett played with a whoooole lotta dog in him too, which also gives him an edge.

The question is where would Barnett be most beneficial as a pass rusher, because make no mistake, pass rushing is his top selling point. If he goes somewhere with a smart DC who will put him in positions to exploit matchups, I don't think there's any question that Barnett could be a consistent double-digit sack guy. At the end of the day, Barnett is just a really good football player. He is going to make plays, but in the right system he could make a lot more of them.

I was thinking about another guy whose film I really liked coming out and whose tape also clearly showed me that he was just a really good football player. A guy who I wasn't quite sure where he would play as a pro but thought was going to end up being productive.

That player was Trey Flowers, a second-year man who had seven sacks during the regular season and 2.5 sacks as the unofficial MVP for the Patriots in the Super Bowl.

It’s crazy how similar Flowers' workout numbers and physical dimensions were to Barnett's, except for Flowers’ superb 36.5-inch vertical.

I don't think Barnett will end up being used inside as much as Flowers, but if a team does decide to do that, Barnett can handle it.

I lean toward Barnett as an outside linebacker who lines up primarily on the left side. My Vols certainly had him dropping enough to show that he has the ability to do that.

And hell, he even had a few really nice breaks on the football:

I could also see Barnett as a left defensive end in a 4-3 attacking style defense, who maybe kicks inside some on passing downs. It just dawned on me earlier how appropriate it was that Barnett broke Reggie White's career sack record at Tennessee, rushing from left defensive end (where Reggie spent most of his Hall of Fame professional career). He only played 10 reps there in the games that I watched.

I'm not sure about Barnett being a good pass rusher inside because everything happens faster in there. I haven't seen him do it with my eyes in the five games that I rewatched, but I wouldn't put it past him to be good at it, either.

Here's a secret: Guys who show themselves to be good football players on tape tend to end up doing well on the next level. I don't care what their 40 time is or how high they jump. Those things matter, but good tape is always going to take precedent. Barnett has been balling since day one at Tennessee. He had 10 sacks as a freshman and has only gotten better since then.

Barnett stacks up against the best of the best

Hell, most of Barnett's success has come against SEC competition, not cupcakes. I watched him against four SEC teams and Nebraska, good competition for this breakdown. Remember when I talked about expecting Wisconsin left tackle Ryan Ramczyk to make good college pass rushers ordinary? Barnett made good college left tackles look average at best.

I hear Alabama's left tackle is supposed to be pretty good.

Barnett beat him for a sack, too.

Cam Robinson is apparently the best left tackle that the SEC has to offer in the draft this year — maybe the best left tackle in the draft period — to hear folks tell it. Barnett still gave him the business.

Even when teams were scheming to double Barnett, knowing that he was one of the only consistent playmakers for Tennessee, he still had at least one sack in each of the five games I watched.



Barnett’s biggest game

You could throw away all of the other games, but that bowl game against Nebraska? That was a first-round-type performance.

Both Nebraska and Tennessee were well-aware of the fact that Barnett was one sack away from breaking Reggie's record.

During the game, it seemed like the Cornhuskers were more concerned with keeping Barnett from breaking the sack record against them than actually moving the ball or scoring on offense.

I can't really blame them considering how out of his mind Barnett played that game.

And Barnett still went out there and found a way to get a sack — really two, but he was robbed earlier in the game (Nebraska 6:21) — in the fourth quarter to both help seal the win and break the record. He also did it rushing from a side that he rarely rushed from. All this after he spent all day fighting against double teams and chip blocks.

Hell, look at the replay:

The right guard is trying like hell to help the right tackle, and the right tackle himself was trying to grab Barnett. All to no avail. Barnett was just too damn good for them both:

I'm pretty sure Barnett's wallet says "Bad Mother Fucker" on it.

In that bowl game, I had Barnett with:

  • The sack and the sack and caused fumble that they robbed him of earlier in the game.
  • Eight pressures (!)
  • Five other tackles.
  • Five other plays where I thought his effort was just outstanding.

Maybe Garrett had a game that was just as impressive, but I can't go by something I didn't see with my own two eyes.

And maybe it doesn't mean much to you, but seeing the whole Tennessee team go out to celebrate with Barnett showed me just how much his teammates love and respect him. I want guys who others gravitate to; that's Barnett all day long.

In closing, yes, I get it that Garrett has a lot more potential and upside than Barnett because of his athletic ability and size. I'm just telling you, don't be surprised if three years from now Barnett is having the better career, barring injury. There also is a good chance that Barnett is more ready to be a productive pass rusher right off the bat than Garrett.

There are no guarantees, but that's one way I could definitely see things going.

I think Jonathan Allen is a better prospect than both of them, but as far as pure edge rushers, the team you root for could do a lot worse than drafting Derek Barnett in the first round.

A lot worse!

Since I don't have access to all-22 for college football games, I use the next best thing for my draft profiles and go to Draft Breakdown where they have the TV copy of a bunch of top prospects already cut up and ready to go. Also, the site is compatible with the new NoHuddle app which turns your cell phone into a "cowboy clicker," which is pretty damn neat. For the purposes of this breakdown, I watched Tennessee edge rusher Derek Barnett play against Florida, Georgia, Texas A&M, Alabama, and Nebraska. Those represented the fourth, fifth, sixth, seventh (before the off week), and 13th games on Tennessee's schedule last season, respectively.