Anthony Barr could and should develop into a nice 3-4 outside linebacker in the NFL, and he is well worth the investment that a team will make for him in (likely) the early-middle part of the first round of the NFL draft Thursday evening.
That needs to be made clear at the top.
Because even though Barr is a fascinating prospect, he is, more than anyone else projected to go in the top part of the first round, a raw one, having only moved from offense to defense two seasons ago.
His success since that transition has been remarkable, as he helped transform the tenor about UCLA football and quickly developed into one of the nation's top pass-rushers:
|Tackles||For Loss||Sacks||Forced Fumbles|
But can he fare so well so soon against superior competition?
When you think about Barr the linebacker, the first thing that comes to mind is athleticism. He is big (6'5", 255 lbs), and at the scouting combine, he graded as the fastest per-pound prospect in the draft when you incorporate all three speed drills, per B/R's Ryan Riddle:
Interesting tidbit: Anthony Barr is the fastest prospect in the draft per pound when combining all three speed drills.— Ryan Riddle (@Ryan_Riddle) April 25, 2014
This helps explain his smooth transition to defense.
Without taking anything away from Barr or then-linebackers coach (and new defensive coordinator) Jeff Ulbrich, a player with such great size-speed measurables does not need pristine technique. He could get away without it, for the most part, because college linemen were not athletic or disciplined enough to stop him.
Biggest thing I hear about Barr is he is not violent & is a raw pass rusher - just a big athlete. IMO his ceiling is high— John Middlekauff (@JohnMiddlekauff) April 21, 2014
That all changes in the NFL. Just ask Dion Jordan: last year's freakishly-athletic-but-raw pass-rusher who started his career on offense before being drafted at the top of the first round.
Jordan went No. 3 overall to the Miami Dolphins last year—a spot generally reserved for instant-impact defenders—but generated only two sacks in his rookie season, grading out at minus-1.8 as a pass-rusher at Pro Football Focus. Being athletic was not enough.
Barr might struggle in a similar fashion next season, although that doesn't mean I dislike his long-term prospects. His capacity to learn the position was impressive at UCLA, and even though that learning curve will level off at some point, I do expect him to become a meaningful player. It just may take some time.
"If a team gets me, if they like what they see," Barr said, according to Chris Burke of SI.com, "they’re going to love what they get because I’m just going to continue to get better."
But many teams do not want to be patient. I guess that's a trapping of the modern NFL. I'm young, but I swear even I can remember a time when a rookie got to play a second year before being labeled a bust. Even Jordan is already being tossed around in trade rumors.
The fear that Barr might be a project—or worse, a not-worthwhile project—will evoke mixed reactions in teams. It will be interesting to see where he goes—both in terms of draft order and in scheme.
B/R's Michael Schottey sums up the mixed opinions pretty nicely:
Some team is going to spend a high pick on Barr, and he's likely to reward that pick with good pass-rush productivity. But the chance he doesn't will keep a bunch of teams from pulling the trigger.
No other pick in the first round has that kind of range. Teams starting in the top five will be asking themselves whether he's the pick. If numerous teams say no, it shouldn't surprise anyone.
Then again, it shouldn't surprise anyone if most of those teams end up kicking themselves down the road.
Barr is what some might call a high risk, high reward-type player, and players like that don't always reveal which outcome they'll be in Year 1. In fact, that it usually the case.
It obviously isn't a perfect comparison, but think about someone like Chicago Bears receiver Alshon Jeffery, who contributed 24 catches and 367 yards as a rookie before exploding for 89 catches and 1,421 yards as a sophomore in 2013.
Yes, one plays offense and the other plays defense, but Jeffery and Barr are similar in that they have always relied on athleticism to dominate their position. Once they're put into a situation where their athleticism, while still very good, is not in a different stratosphere, it is fair to expect a grace period while they learn how to adjust.
Might Barr be great immediately in 2014? Sure. I wouldn't be shocked if he logged eight or nine sacks—just surprised.
He's a good one for sure; it just may take a little time.
Follow Brian Leigh on Twitter: @BLeighDAT