For most of training camp and the preseason, the focus has correctly been placed on Teddy Bridgewater and Matt Cassel battling for the starting quarterback position.
No doubt, that should be a major emphasis for a Minnesota Vikings franchise that has tried and failed to draft a franchise quarterback in the first two rounds in 2006 and 2011. Bridgewater embodies more promise than Tarvaris Jackson and Christian Ponder combined, so the expectation is that eventually he will be the long-term solution.
Offensive coordinator Norv Turner said Bridgewater should have been a top-10 draft pick, and that very well could prove true. But the Vikings also had the opportunity to draft him No. 9, not No. 32 where they eventually did get him, and passed on him there. There is good reason for that.
Somewhat overshadowed in the spotlight at quarterback has been the player the Vikings drafted 23 spots in front of Bridgewater – linebacker Anthony Barr. Like Bridgewater, his play is more electrifying than his talk.
Barr is a soft-spoken player off the field, but it appears his play will be louder than perhaps any linebacker the Vikings have had in the last few decades, and the key will be head coach Mike Zimmer. As Jadeveon Clowney demanded the attention of draft evaluators as the top defensive player in the draft, and eventually the top overall draft pick for the Houston Texans, it was Barr that had the sort of versatility that Zimmer thrives off when molding players.
Barr is considered raw, having played only two seasons of linebacker at UCLA after volunteering to switch from running back to defense, but he is oh-so talented, and rushing passer standing up or on the line of scrimmage is his specialty.
“I think he’s got a little bit of a learning curve there. He’s not used to having his hand in the dirt, but his willingness to learn is refreshing to see,” defensive end Brian Robison said. “He’s always coming up to me or Everson (Griffen) or coach (Andre) Patterson or (Robb) Akey, he’s always trying to figure out things that he can do better. He’s got such raw talent with just his speed and stuff, if he starts learning some of the hand techniques and things like that, he’s going to be a force to be reckoned with.”
Robison’s assessment proved true on Saturday in Kansas City. Barr had three tackles and was a mix of impressive athleticism and raw fundamentals. There were times he was getting to the ball carrier faster that a man that size should, and there were other times it appeared he struggled to shed a block quickly enough.
But the Vikings are counting on him being “a force to be reckoned with,” and it’s just starting to show. Fortunately for him and the Vikings, he is in the perfect situation.
For starters, he has the spotlight shining brightly on Bridgewater, not himself. But even if there was no early-round quarterback to obsess over, Barr just doesn’t seem like the kind of player that pays much attention to the attention … or even has that much time for it.
His sentences are short, and his answers might be comprised of two sentences. And they haven’t provided much insight into his play, his strengths or weaknesses. Thankfully for those looking for entertainment and a high-level athleticism, his play has been anything but bland.
The biggest challenge is finding him, despite his 6-foot-5, 255-pound frame. He is a hulk who has the size to play defensive end. But he also has the speed to play linebacker and the willingness to do whatever is asked of him.
It didn’t take the Vikings long to figure out how they wanted to use him, and the answer to that is any way, any how, any time. He is just that versatile and the arrow on his value should quickly point skyward. He has Zimmer, a defensive mastermind according to his former players. He has Adam Zimmer, Mike’s son and the linebackers coach, as his go-between who points to the meticulous note-taking of Barr. And he has Andre Patterson, who has worked with Barr on his pass-rushing and counter-punching moves, a defensive line tactician that received big props for his individually tailored approach to coaching each player.
In other words, the 2014 coaching staff, defensive scheme and Barr’s talents appear to be a perfect confluence of timing, talent and opportunity.
Mike Zimmer is walking a fine line with his defense in the preseason. He wants them to learn the basics and fundamentals of his defense before moving onto the more exotic schemes he employs to confuse offenses. They are now at that point, Zimmer says, but there is no doubt that many of those looks are being saved for the regular season before they are taken from the practice field to the playing field on Sunday afternoons.
When they are, Barr’s true value will start to be realized by fans, as they are already by his teammates and coaches.
It seems to take a lot to get Zimmer to be effusive with praise for his players, but there was one moment this preseason when asked about Barr that Zimmer shook his head with a bit of a breathless laugh, indicating he sees plenty of potential that can unleashed.
“He is pretty good with his hand up or down, really, to be honest with you,” Zimmer said. “He has such great acceleration.”
For all the reasons above, Barr very well could end up getting the attention he deserves while Bridgewater learns in the background. When he fully applies all that is being taught, he will be just what the Vikings envisioned when passing on Bridgewater the first time around and selecting a raw defensive rookie.
Said Robison: “I think he’s going to be a heck of a force for us.”
Tim Yotter is the publisher of Viking Update. Follow Viking Update on Twitter and discuss this topic on our message boards. To become a subscriber to the Viking Update web site or magazine, click here.
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