The SI 64, No. 6: OLB Anthony Barr
With the 2014 NFL draft fast approaching, it’s time for all 32 NFL teams to start getting their draft boards in order and ranking players based on their own preferences. At SI, it’s time for us to do that as well. And to that end, Doug Farrar and Chris Burke have assembled their own definitive Big Board, consisting of the players they feel deserve to be selected in the first two rounds.
The SI 64 -- which can be found in its entirety here -- uses tape study to define the best prospects in this class and why they’re slotted as such.
No. 6: UCLA OLB Anthony Barr
Bio: Anthony Barr ran for 1,820 yards and 20 touchdowns as a high school junior. In 2010, his first season at UCLA, Barr caught nine passes as a wide receiver. The following year, he found the end zone twice while playing an H-back role (dubbed an "F-back" in UCLA's scheme).
It was not until the months before the 2012 college football season kicked off that the Bruins decided to give Barr a look at the linebacker position. He took the challenge and ran with it, earning second-team All-America honors after a 13.5-sack campaign that put him firmly on the NFL radar. Barr delivered a solid encore, too, delivering another 10 sacks as a senior.
Still, the 6-foot-5, 255-pound Barr is a little more than 24 months removed from his shift to the defensive side of the football. So it does not take much to see why NFL teams are drooling over his potential ... and are concerned with how long it will take him to tap into it fully.
"The transition was pretty smooth, honestly," said Barr of moving to an OLB mid-college career. "I think moving backward, going back in coverage, was something that was new to me. But now I feel comfortable with that.
"Just sort of getting used to the position. It’s still sort of new to me in a sense. It’s exciting. If I continue to work, the sky’s the limit."
Therein lies the rub for NFL teams. Edge rushers with Barr's athletic traits do not hit the draft board that often. In Round 1, though, and especially in the top 10, drafting a player for what he might become is a tough proposition. A similar challenge faces the front offices contemplating QB Blake Bortles at or near the top of the 2014 draft -- in the very near future, Bortles could develop into the top quarterback from this class; right now, he's clearly not as far along as Teddy Bridgewater and others.
"If a team gets me, if they like what they see," Barr said, "they’re going to love what they get because I’m just going to continue to get better."
Barr's promise falls in line with the steps forward he took after switching to the Bruins' defensive unit. His speed from the outside linebacker spot made him a nuisance for tackles and tight ends, while also giving him the ability to pursue sideline to sideline. Everything else, from his technique to his knowledge of the position, remains a work in progress.
A glimpse into the NFL crystal ball offers a vision of Barr as a dominant, pass-rushing force for the next decade. How long it takes that prophecy to come to fruition is anyone's guess.
Strengths: Spectacularly quick off the edge, and flashes the ability to bend well when trying to turn the corner around blockers. Puts his speed to use once he works free of blockers, closing on QBs in a hurry. Chases the ball well -- 83 tackles in 2012 and 66 in '13, many coming with Barr pursuing to the far side of the field. Deceptive strength both as a tackler and in fighting off blocks.
Barr's willingness to shift from running back to receiver to H-back and finally to linebacker highlights his coachability, a factor NFL teams pay very close attention to during the draft process. Barr also speaks honestly about the areas in which he needs to improve.
Coveted size for an edge player. Once he develops a little better feel for his timing, Barr will be difficult to throw passes over or around because of his length. Some room to add bulk, though he said at the combine that he feels most comfortable at his current weight.
Weaknesses: Must become far better utilizing his hands to shed blockers, as he can be dominated at times right now. Along the same lines, Barr has to improve his repertoire when rushing the passer, because a straight speed rush will be less effective in the NFL than it was at UCLA.
By his own admission, Barr's coverage skills leave something to be desired. UCLA did not ask him to drop with much regularity, but it will be a key component of his game from here out, especially if he lands as a LB in a 4-3 scheme. He also misses more tackles than he should while gunning for the big hit. Barr will run himself out of position against play-action and misdirection, an element of his game that NFL offenses will exploit until he hones his awareness.
Conclusion: Find any player with only two years of experience playing on the defensive side of the football and he will have many of the problems that Barr does. But Barr's athleticism sets him apart.
Barr took to the OLB job as well as UCLA could have hoped, with the production occurring quickly. If he were to jump into an NFL game today, Barr would be a threat for multiple sacks. Given mini-camps, training camp and the preseason to bring his game along, and Barr should be ready to contribute early. Wait another year or two, and we might be talking about one of the league's premier pass rushers.