When the Eagles drafted Derek Barnett with the 14th overall pick in the 2017 draft, there was already plenty of buzz that he would impress and grow into a superstar talent.
During his three years playing for the Tennessee Volunteers, Derek Barnett set the school record for career sacks with 33.0. The next person on that list? Reggie Jackson with 32.0. That’s right, Eagles sack-leader and legend Reggie Jackson. The Minister of Defense. The parallels felt too good to be true.
Fast forward to 2020, and the results have been very mixed. Many will know Barnett from his most famous moment, recovering the Tom Brady fumble in the waning moments of Super Bowl LII to seal the win:
Still, one moment doesn’t define a career, and Barnett’s statistics suggest he has a left a lot on the table for the Eagles. Since 2017, Barnett has accumulated 14.0 career sacks, to go along with 54 solo tackles, 49 quarterback hits, three forced fumbles, and two fumble recoveries.
Barnett Needs To Shake Off His “Average” Label
Barnett’s stats are very similar to other first-round defense ends taken in the past few years. Jonathon Allen, taken three spots behind Barnett at 17th overall, has 15.0 sacks in his career. Shaq Lawson (19th overall in 2016) has 16.5. Marcus Davenport (14th overall in 2018) is up to 10.5.
However, to become simply “average” isn’t a football player’s goal. For a high first-round pick like Barnett, greater production is needed. This becomes even more necessary when considering the state of the defensive ends.
Both Brandon Graham and Vinny Curry are 32, and beyond those two veterans remain a group of very inexperienced prospects, who have either underwhelmed (Genard Avery, Shareef Miller) or still have some ways to go (Joe Ostman, Josh Sweat).
The Eagles need Barnett to show them that he can not only step up this season, but is their future at the position and is worth investing in long-term. As he enters year four, he can’t be defended for mistakes and inconsistencies.
How Can Barnett Take It To The Next Level?
There are numerous areas where Barnett could improve if he wants to earn a big-time paycheck in the upcoming years. For one, he has become too sloppy with infractions. Barnett had the second-most penalties on the Eagles last season with nine, just one behind Jason Peters.
Even worse is that three of those penalties were for unnecessary roughness. Taking an offsides or holding can be chalked up as “heat of the moment,” but these calls are the case of stupidity from the player.
There are other obvious areas for development. The aforementioned sack output has been underwhelming. One promising note is that Barnett set a career-high in sacks last season with six-and-a-half. If Barnett can continue that pace and put up eight-to-nine sacks in 2020, he’ll be in a great position to take over as the Eagles’ premier pass rusher.
Staying on the field could also help. So far in 2020, Barnett is already dealing with an ankle sprain. In 2018, Barnett played in six games after requiring shoulder surgery. He still hasn’t had a full 16-game season in his career.
If Barnett can stay on the field, play smart, and get by defending tackles while putting more pressure and hits on the quarterback, there is no reason to think he can’t reach the level of production that was expected of him when he heard his name called.
Eagles Betting On Barnett To Shine
Regardless of how Barnett does this season, the Eagles have already shown they’re confident in his ability by exercising his fifth-year option for 2021. This option comes in at over $10 million, and will be fully guaranteed.
It’s a risky decision considering there are other areas that need salary investments (such as tight end). Not to mention Barnett hasn’t given the team enough evidence he can be an elite rusher.