Last week, Eagles defensive line coach Chris Wilson was in the middle of singing Derek Barnett’s praises, when he eventually gave an answer that piqued my interest. Wilson was saying Barnett had a great offseason after already seeing significant growth during his rookie season, aided by an increased football IQ.
So after hearing all that, I threw an obvious question Wilson’s way: What’s fair to expect from Barnett in Year 2?
And Wilson’s answer was interesting.
“You’d like to see him compete as a starter,” he said. “And that’s what it is. You want to see him compete as an every-down player and that’s the expectation. And I think that’s the expectation for any second-year guys, especially guys that are drafted at his status. I believe he has the ability to be a three-down guy and that’s what we’re looking for.”
The answer isn’t interesting because of Barnett. He showed enough promise last season to think that he can live up to being a first-round pick. He showed star potential.
It’s interesting because there appear to be barriers in Barnett’s path to becoming a starter. They’re named Brandon Graham and Michael Bennett. But during the spring, Graham didn’t participate after ankle surgery and Bennett didn’t show up until the mandatory minicamp.
“I haven’t set starters. I really haven’t,” Wilson said. “I know that’s a cliche for coaches, but you know, this has been voluntary and I just coach the guys who are here. The biggest thing that I look for is who’s improving. Nobody’s got a locked-in [job].”
Ultimately, it doesn’t really matter who is on the field at the start of games for the Eagles because they rotate so much. The difference is that the guys on the field at the start are trusted to stop the run as much as they are to rush the passer. We saw that from Graham and Vinny Curry last year. Becoming a complete player is the next step for Barnett.
Because defensive ends — fairly or not — are always judged by sacks, let's take a look at that area. Barnett had five as a rookie, which is a pretty solid number. It’s the highest total an Eagles rookie has had since Fletcher Cox picked up 5 1/2 in 2012.
While it’s fair to expect growth from players in their second season, of the seven players who had at least five sacks as rookies in 2016, just two of them had more sacks in Year 2 in 2017.
Sack numbers aside, Barnett should improve in his own Year 2. For starters, he won’t be dealing with a sports hernia that required offseason surgery. For what it’s worth, Wilson said if the injury was bothering Barnett, he didn’t know.
But the area where Wilson seemed most pleased with Barnett’s growth was his strength. Barnett worked hard since the Super Bowl to improve his overall strength and to develop a good power move. Coming out of college, he was known more as a finesse player, respected for his incredible bend.
Now, he’s working to get more powerful, which would certainly make him a much more viable option to be a starter, barriers or not.