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How an NFL undrafted free agent became a Defensive Player of the Year contender

It’s time everyone gets to know Shaquil Barrett’s name because what he’s doing is unprecedented.

Buccaneers DE Shaquil Barrett superimposed on a silver background with green designs
Buccaneers DE Shaquil Barrett finished September with nine sacks, three forced fumbles, and an interception.

What else have we learned so far at the quarter mark of the season? Gardner Minshew is the early favorite for Rookie of the Year. The Cowboys, Eagles, and Saints have the best offensive lines. Jay Gruden is still the coach most likely to be fired first, while a few surprises have emerged in the Coach of the Year race.

Nobody listens, man.

I’ve pumped out two successive columns praising Shaquil Barrett’s outstanding production with the Buccaneers this year. I’ve explained just how thoroughly this guy is embarrassing offensive tackles. I’ve pointed out Barrett is winning with great technique and above-average athleticism. I’ve accurately predicted Barrett would keep winning his one-on-one matchups every week.

I actually implored teams to start sending their tackles help when they had Barrett lined up across from them. As an old defensive lineman, I ought to be ashamed of myself.

But did they listen?

*sucks teeth*

Please, pretty please somebody, anybody, everybody wake up to the fact that Barrett is that dude right now. You can’t name an edge rusher who is playing on his level after the first quarter of the season.

Try it, I dare you.

What Barrett is doing is unprecedented

Listen Linda, we are starting to sail into uncharted waters here with Barrett’s accomplishments on the season. He has now raised his sack total to nine, leading the league by a healthy margin in that category. Only three other guys have ever notched nine sacks in the first four games of the season.

Recognize any of these names?

-Mark Gastineau
-Kevin Greene
-Kabeer Gbaja-Biamila

At the time he retired, Gastineau was the all-time career leader in sacks with 107.5. Greene is a Hall of Famer now who finished with 160 career sacks of own. The “other guy” is the lesser-known Biamila, who “only” had 74.5 sacks in his career.

Suffice it to say, Barrett is in great company.

And that’s before we even get to the nine other pressures, three forced fumbles, two pass breakups, two other tackles for a loss, and an interception he’s had.

At the same time, I’ve never seen a situation quite like Barrett’s before. He is the only player on that very short list who didn’t get drafted. I’m also pretty sure he is the only one of that four who started out on the practice squad. Up until now, Barrett’s best year in the league was in 2015 with the Broncos. He also has only started more than six games once in his previous five seasons.

It wasn’t at all surprising that most teams weren’t beating down his door this past offseason. How many undrafted guys have had a breakout season in their sixth year in the league? I don’t think many people were even sure he would start when the Bucs signed him to a one-year deal.

The price of the brick is going up with each new dominant performance. He has come almost literally out of nowhere to being in prime position to dethrone reigning Defensive Player of the Year Aaron Donald. That’s something I’m not sure even Barrett could’ve imagined prior to the start of this season.

Barrett made his strongest case yet for Defensive Player of the Year against the Rams

In Week 4, Barrett didn’t have another multi-sack game, but in some ways what he did in LA was even more impressive than what he had done in his previous two games.

Recording a sack is nice and all, but causing three turnovers in one game and getting the ball back for your red-hot offense? Now that’s priceless.

It also was a big factor in the Bucs upsetting the Rams. That Barrett was able to make those plays from the left side illustrates for the unfamiliar just how versatile this young baller can be.

I am wondering if I might have given some folks the wrong impression before. It just so happened that I only broke down plays that he made while lined up on the defensive right edge. That might’ve come off like Barrett either plays over there all the time, or he doesn’t make plays when he lines up on the other side.

Nothing could be further from the truth, as the Rams learned the hard way.

Barrett did have good pass rushes already from the left edge in the first three weeks of the season. I know the Rams watch the same film that I do, and then some. So while the rest of y’all might have been clueless to the destruction that Barrett could unleash off the left edge, LA didn’t have any excuse for looking so unprepared.

It’s pretty wild how a guy who made so many big plays from the right side made several almost exclusively from the left side in Week 4. However, Barrett was also balling on the right side like usual. Hell, he barely missed out on two other potential sacks from the right side. It just so happens that this was the week when it was time for him to layeth the smacketh down on the right tackle’s ass rather than the left’s.

For now, let me take you through the film. I’m going to highlight three plays where Barrett was able to force the Rams into a turnover, and let’s see if I can’t convince you of how deserving he is to be the DPOTY frontrunner.

Play No. 1: How he forced Goff into a crucial interception

Early in the second quarter, the Buccaneers were up 7-0, but the Rams were putting together a pretty good drive. At the Bucs’ 30-yard line, the Rams were in shotgun, with running back Todd Gurley offset to quarterback Jared Goff’s left and three receivers and a tight end in the game.

Barrett was lined up on the defensive left edge this time, across from right tackle Rob Havenstein in a standup loose five-technique. The Bucs initially showed five defensive linemen on the play pre-snap, by walking up inside linebacker Lavonte David on the right edge and bumping the rest of their normal front four inside.

This gave the impression they might be blitzing, and even though David dropped back into coverage on the snap, the other Bucs inside linebacker, Kevin Minter, faked like he was coming on a blitz to the same general area that David had vacated after the ball was snapped. He was really just trying to “hug up” Gurley in coverage, but it at least appeared the Rams’ offensive line reacted as if they were expecting a fifth rusher.

Now why is this important?

It’s because if the Rams had known the Bucs were only rushing four, they could have tried to slide the center toward Barrett to get Havenstein some help with an inside move. But with the left side of the offensive line looking for an extra rusher, that left nobody but Havenstein to try to block Barrett.

Yeah, you can imagine how that turned out.

On the snap, Barrett came screaming up the field for three hard steps. He took that third step with his outside (left) foot, and as soon as it hit the ground, Barrett turned right in toward Havenstein and shot his hand up to Havenstein’s chest as if Barrett were going to hit him with a surprise bull rush. It happened so quickly and the movement was so slight that anybody not trying to block him might have missed it. However, Havenstein did see it and reacted immediately to the perceived threat of a power rush, stopping his feet and bracing to try to absorb it.

And that’s what did him in.

As soon as he saw Havenstein slow his feet down, Barrett planted his inside (right) foot and pushed himself back outside and around Havenstein rather than through him. At the same time, Barrett dipped to get his pad level back down and swung his inside (right) arm underneath Havenstein’s outside (left) arm. He leaned back into Havenstein for a mean dip-and-rip move.

At that point, all Havenstein could do was try to lean on Barrett and hold on for dear life. It was of no use because Barrett now had a straight line to the quarterback and he wasn’t going to squander that opportunity. He finished the rip and left Havenstein on his knees in the dust.

I don’t know what Goff saw first; his wide receiver, Cooper Kupp, roasting his defender and breaking wide open downfield, or Barrett breathing down his neck after beating Havenstein and trying to break his face. Either way, Goff tried to get his pass off to Kupp before Barrett could get to him.

It didn’t work.

Bucs DE Shaquil Barrett forces an interception by hitting the arm of Rams QB Jared Goff

Barrett extended his left arm up and out so that he could hit Goff’s throwing (right) arm before Goff could follow through. The impact of Barrett hitting Goff’s elbow took all the steam off of the throw, and the ball just floated up in the air before it came down almost directly to Bucs safety Jordan Whitehead, who caught Goff’s arm punt and returned it to midfield.

The Tampa offense went right down and scored a touchdown to go up 14-0. All because of that great, but subtle, move Barrett put on the hapless Havenstein.

Still with me so far? Cool, because there is more where that came from.

Play No. 2: Barrett proved he’s more than a pass rusher with an interception

Late in the third quarter, the Rams were down 31-20. LA decided to try to go for it on fourth-and-2 at the Bucs’ 40-yard line. To help their chances of success, the Rams tried to go fast to catch the Bucs off guard. They quickly got to the line in a shotgun empty set, with backup running back Malcolm Brown to the right side of the formation and a tight end and a receiver in a tight split to the left side.

The idea was to line Brown up as the innermost of the three eligible receivers and run him to the flat. The two receivers would run right at the defenders covering them to form a moving screen for Brown down the field so he could catch the ball and get the first down.

Or at least that’s how it was supposed to happen.

I don’t know if this is something the Rams do on a regular basis, but the Bucs seemed fully prepared for this play. Barrett, in particular, reacted as if he had crystal ball.

Barrett was once again in a standup loose five-technique as the defense’s left edge rusher, kinda lined up on the inside half of Brown. When the ball was snapped, instead of trying to get up the field to pass rush, Barrett stepped wide outside almost like he had Brown in coverage. Havenstein aggressively pursued Barrett as Barrett stepped outside. Havenstein reached out to try to grab Barrett in a big old bear hug, but Barrett was able to avoid Havenstein enough to keep his outside (left) arm free, while continuing to work into the passing lane between Goff and Brown.

Goff didn’t have much of a choice but to try to make the throw because he was under immediate pressure from a blitzing Minter, who came scot-free through the right A gap. The ball was on target and had at least a chance of being a completion had Barrett not been there. But he was, so it wasn’t.

Bucs DE Shaquil Barrett steps in front of a screen pass to intercept Rams QB Jared Goff

Barrett was able to reach up and tip the ball up in the air, even with Havenstein draped all over him. He then had the concentration to catch the ball. After a quick bobble, Barrett was able to establish complete control before Havenstein was dragged him out of bounds.

Yes, that’s right, folks. Barrett is more than just a great pass rusher. A lot more in fact. The guy has been a big-play machine all season. And by the way, the Bucs made the most of the opportunity Barrett provided them by marching right down the field to score another touchdown.

Of course if you know anything about the Bucs’ recent history, you know that lead was far from insurmountable. Sunday, though, things went a little bit differently at the end of the game.

Play No. 3: Barrett was clutch when his team needed him most

You would think after seeing Barrett set offensive tackles on fire that the Rams might have seen the error or their ways and sent Havenstein some damn help. After all, they were in desperation mode and the last thing they could afford was to allow Barrett to embarrass one of their tackles again.


No, seriously. With only 1:17 left, down eight points at midfield, the Rams really just said fuck it and left one of their tackles to try to handle Barrett one-on-one again. You know, the guy who already had eight sacks in the first three weeks.

To quote myself once again quoting Pernell McPhee: fucking mistake!

What makes it worse is that they had Gurley offset to Barrett’s side this time. However, the Bucs showed a walked up double-A gap blitz look with their linebackers, as they had quite a bit during the game. Gurley ended up looking inside for a blitz that never came while his right tackle was getting his ass kicked again. The kicker? The Rams kept their tight end to block and still couldn’t spare anybody to help out with Barrett.


This time, Barrett sold Havenstein on a speed rush by hauling up the field for three steps. On the third step with his outside (left) foot, Barrett raised up his inside (right) hand as if he were going to chop down on Havenstein’s outside (right) hand and try to beat Havenstein around the edge. This caused Havenstein to turn his body almost perpendicular to the line of scrimmage as he prepared to try to ride Barrett past the level of the quarterback on what he assumed was going to be a speed rush.

As soon as Barrett saw Havenstein turning and trying to shoot his punch, Barrett planted with that outside (left) foot and used his left leg to spring him back around inside, while he pirouetted off of his inside (right) foot.

Havenstein didn’t fully commit to the punch and was still in position to potentially recover when Barrett finished his 360. But then Barrett swung what had been his outside (left) arm around with violent intentions and elbowed Havenstein in his back, which helped to pin Havenstein’s arms and prevent him from being able to keep his hands on Barrett.

As he finished the spin and left behind Havenstein in his wake, Barrett ended up literally right in front of Goff, who evidently hadn’t taken notice that his right tackle was getting demolished again. Goff did try to move to his right to avoid Barrett at the last second, but he was basically a sitting duck at that point.

Just one week after the Bucs blew an 18-point lead to the Giants, Barrett found a way to ensure that didn’t happen to again. That meant he wasn’t going to settle for just a sack. He sold all the way out and swiped at the football as he was taking Goff down.

Bucs DE Shaquil Barrett sacks Rams QB Jared Goff and forces a fumble that’s recovered by Bucs DT Ndamukong Suh

Barrett didn’t actually touch the football, but the force of his blow, along with Goff trying to keep the ball away from Barrett’s swiping hands, created a fumble all the same.

Barrett’s teammate, defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh, barely broke stride as he scooped that pigskin and hauled ass 37 yards for yet another touchdown off of a Barrett-forced turnover. That was the final nail in the coffin on any Rams comeback attempt. It put the Bucs up for good 55-40.

For his efforts against the Rams in Week 4, Barrett earned Hoss of the Week honors, making him the only player to ever win it three weeks in a row.

It’s time everyone knows Shaquil Barrett’s name

To come from where Barrett has in his career and then turn around and put up these kinds of numbers in a month is both amazing and preposterous. It’s also unprecedented, as far as I can tell.

Furthermore, I went back and rewatched the Bucs’ Week 1 loss to the 49ers because I thought I must’ve missed something. I’m not sure even the team knew what it had in Barrett in the first game. The Bucs were dropping him in coverage damn near half the time on passing downs that day. They had him outchea trying to cover George Kittle down the field while Jimmy Garoppolo was standing all comfy in the pocket.

After seeing what I’ve seen in the last three games, I can’t help but wonder what his stats might’ve looked like had he rushed the passer a few more times against the 49ers.

I just really hope he stays healthy because there is no telling how crazy his numbers will be. Especially with these teams being hard-headed trying to single-block him. Even when he isn’t getting sacks or pressures, the dude is winning one-on-one pass rush reps repeatedly. Not all of them, but enough that it actually stands out when he doesn’t win.

I watch every game, every week. You don’t see that much on film, even from guys who have multiple double digit-sack seasons. Let’s not forget most of your fave’s never had a start to the season like this, either. Not Reggie White, not LT, not Bruce Smith — none of ‘em.

And I’m calling it right now: unless Barrett misses some time, he should end up winning Defensive Player of the Year. He isn’t going to stop making plays if he’s healthy, that’s for sure. If he doesn’t win it, it will likely only be because of low name recognition.

In light of the historic season he’s having, it’s time that every football fan starts to learn Barrett’s name, and I’m happy to do my part in that effort. I won’t be writing about him again for a while, but this should be more than enough to get people interested. So if you found this column persuasive, pass it along to all your friends so everyone can get familiar.