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Can Anthony Barr Become the Next Von Miller?

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Can Anthony Barr Become the Next Von Miller?
Hannah Foslien/Getty Images

The player-to-player comparison isn't a perfect one, but Mike Zimmer and the Minnesota Vikings are going to do everything in their power to coax as much production from first-round pick Anthony Barr as the Denver Broncos have received from former No. 2 overall selection Von Miller

According to Zimmer, Barr—the No. 9 pick in May's draft—will play a similar role to Miller in the Vikings' new-look defense. In Denver, Miller stands up at strong-side linebacker in the 4-3 front but also moves down to edge-rusher in passing situations. 

Barr will be expected to do much of the same in Minnesota. 

"Typically, our 'Sam' linebacker blitzes a lot more than our 'Will' linebacker, for instance," Zimmer said, via Ben Goessling of ESPN. "We're thinking of ways to continually try to pressure the quarterback as many times as we can, and the position he plays is a pressure position. That's why we felt good about him." 

Miller has 35 sacks and 11 forced fumbles over just 40 games since entering the league in 2011. He's sixth in the league in total sacks over the last three years despite missing eight games (the five players ahead of him have all played at least 43 games). His usage in the Broncos defense makes those early career numbers even more impressive. 

Per Pro Football Focus (subscription required), Miller rushed the quarterback on just 46 percent of his total snaps last season. On strictly passing plays, the Broncos rushed Miller 76.7 percent of the snaps, which led all 4-3 linebackers. He still finished with 38 total pressures, which also led the position. 

Miller's pressure production is especially rare when compared to the usage of other pass-rushers. For instance, only two qualifying 4-3 defensive ends (who played 50 percent or more total snaps) rushed the passer on less than 90 percent of their teams' pass plays last season.

And of the top 20 3-4 outside linebackers in total pressures, only Jerry Hughes of the Buffalo Bills rushed the quarterback on a smaller percentage of pass plays than Miller in 2013. 

Over three NFL seasons, Miller does not have a year in which he's rushed the passer on over 80 percent of passing snaps. Yet he's remained one of the NFL's most consistent pressure defenders. 

Like most of the game's greats, there simply aren't many comparable players in the NFL to Miller. Among 4-3 outside linebackers, only two others rushed the quarterback on more than 50 percent of passing snaps last season.

Sio Moore of the Oakland Raiders was one at 68.1 percent. The other was James Harrison, who manned the strong-side linebacker position for Zimmer with the Cincinnati Bengals. He rushed on 63.7 percent of passing snaps. 

Doug Pensinger/Getty Images

Reasons for the rarity include defensive scheme, of which few teams play a true attacking-style 4-3 defense. But even more important in the equation is the uniqueness of Miller's skill set. Without a player like Miller, it is difficult to play the scheme. 

Barr, who made 41.5 tackles for loss and 23.5 sacks over his final two years at UCLA, will be Zimmer's version of Miller (or Harrison) in Minnesota. He'll be vital for the aggressive nature of Zimmer's defense, which is built on stopping the run on early downs and putting unyielding pressure on quarterbacks in passing situations. 

Like both Miller and Harrison, Barr will be asked to play the run as a stand-up linebacker in the 4-3, drop into coverage on a certain percentage of snaps and provide consistent pressure off the edge. But the Vikings didn't draft Barr to be a run-stopper or a cover linebacker. They drafted him to get after the quarterback. 

He still has a ways to go before he can reach Miller's status as a pass-rusher. 

Miller makes his living with one of the game's most explosive first steps. He's also as flexible as any edge-rusher in bending around offensive tackles, which is a trait that usually separates a very good pass-rusher from the best of the best. 

Also, there have been few better athletes at the linebacker position in recent drafts. 

At the 2011 combine, Miller posted top linebacker numbers in every drill but the bench press (he still did 21 reps). He ran the 40-yard dash in 4.53 seconds, second only to Martez Wilson (4.49). His 37-inch vertical leap and 4.06-second 20-yard shuttle finished third, and he led all linebackers in the broad jump (10'6"), three-cone drill (6.70 seconds) and 60-yard shuttle (11.15 seconds). 

Miller's time in the 60-yard shuttle is the fastest since 2011, and only one linebacker has beat his time in the three-cone drill and distance in the broad jump. Only six linebackers over the last four years have run faster in the 40. 

Miller is an elite athlete at 6'3" and almost 250 pounds. 

NFL Combine Comparison: Von Miller vs. Anthony Barr
V. Miller A. Barr
40-yard Dash 4.53 4.66
Bench Press 21 15
Vertical Jump 37" 34.5"
Broad Jump 126" 119"
Three-Cone Drill 6.70 6.82
20-yard Shuttle 4.06 4.19
60-yard Shuttle 11.15 N/A

Source: NFL.com

Barr is no slouch, but he's not in the same stratosphere as Miller. 

At 6'5" and 255 pounds, Barr ran the 40-yard dash in 4.66 seconds—0.13 seconds slower than Miller. He was also 2.5 inches short in the vertical leap, seven inches short in the broad jump, six reps fewer on the bench press, 0.12 seconds slower in the three-cone drill and 0.13 seconds slower in the 20-yard shuttle.

These are not huge, deal-breaking differences between the two players. But they do highlight just how special an athlete Miller was coming into the NFL. Barr is a tremendous athlete in his own right, but Miller has to be considered one step above. 

Most importantly, Miller's athleticism consistently jumps off the tape. 

Below, we see one of Miller's 18.5 sacks from 2012:

Credit: NFL Game Rewind

This sack is a ridiculous blend of first-step quickness, flexibility at the point of attack and bend around the corner. Miller wins immediately off the snap, beating the right tackle clean to the corner with his first few steps.

Watch the right tackle attempt to side-step into position only to frantically lunge at his long-gone opponent. Miller then ducks under the block attempt, turns on a dime at the quarterback and makes the sack. 

Edge-rushers in the NFL can get sacks in a lot of ways. But the ones who can do what Miller did above are generally considered among the elite rushers.  

At UCLA, Barr piled up sacks mostly thanks to his impressive speed around the corner. But occasionally, like in the video below, he put all the tools together to beat a college tackle:

Credit: Draft Breakdown

We see many of the same things in this clip as we do in the Miller sack of Ben Roethlisberger. Barr wins off the snap, getting the offensive tackle to rock way back on his heels.

At this point, his speed and quickness have won the play. But Barr finishes off the sack in professional style by ducking under the tackle, thus avoiding any push out of his trajectory at the quarterback. From there, it's an easy takedown inside the pocket. 

Bend and flexibility are important. Speed-rushers can be neutralized in the NFL by smart tackles who simply nudge the rusher slightly off course, allowing the quarterback to step into the pocket and avoid any mayhem to the outside. Like NASA altering an asteroid's orbit ever so slightly as to avoid Earth, a tackle can push a pass-rusher far enough up field to keep his quarterback out of harm's way. 

However, when a pass-rusher can duck and bend like we've seen from Miller (consistently) and Barr (occasionally), the offensive tackle is without reprieve. And it's then usually Deep Impact-like devastation for the quarterback. 

Here's another example from Miller:

Credit: NFL Game Rewind

There's really no blocking him on this play. Not only does Miller explode off the snap, but he gets himself low enough that the taller right tackle can't even get his hands on him. Somehow, despite his body's contortion, Miller still turns the corner and puts Tom Brady on the ground. 

There's no comparable play from Barr's tape at UCLA. And that's not a knock on Barr; it's a testament to Miller and his incredible ability to rush the passer at an elite level.

We must keep in mind, Barr has been playing defense for just two seasons. A converted running back, he is still acquiring the tools needed in rushing the quarterback. Advanced techniques like Miller uses might eventually come with the tutelage of Zimmer and his staff.

Zimmer summed up Barr well here, via Brian Hall of Fox Sports North:

When you think about it, the guy has played two years on defense and has done the things that he has does and has the athletic ability that he has and he's like a fawn. He's just learning some of these things. It's not that he is so raw that he is not a good football player, because he is a really good football player. I don't want anybody to think that because he is inexperienced that he is not a good football player. He will be good. I'm excited about the chance to take him and mold him into what I really envision him to be which I think will be good.

For now, it would be mostly unfair to project Barr as the next Von Miller. They will play similar (maybe identical) roles on defense, but Miller entered the NFL ahead of Barr in terms of experience and light-years ahead of him in terms of his pass-rushing arsenal. He was a special player with an NFL-ready game from the get-go. 

That said, if Zimmer can work his developmental magic on Barr, the Vikings will still have a highly disruptive asset at edge-rusher much like Miller. 

The athletic tools are all in place. Now, it's time for the Vikings to mold Barr into their own version of Miller, even if the two aren't exact replicas of each other. 

 

Zach Kruse covers the NFC North for Bleacher Report. 

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