2017 NFL draft prospect countdown, No. 14: Derek Barnett, Edge, Tennessee
What you need to know: Step aside, Reggie White. Barnett’s 33 career sacks at Tennessee broke the legendary lineman’s school record of 32, with 13.0 of those takedowns coming during the 2016 season. Barnett was named first-team All-SEC and first-team All-America, capping his remarkable run with the Vols. On top of his historic sack total, Barnett also was responsible for 198 career tackles, 52.0 for loss (one shy of the Tennessee record). Barnett notched eight multi-sack games during his college career, three of which came as a true freshman in 2014; he had a pair of three-sack performances against South Carolina (’14 and ’16). His lone interception occurred last season, against Alabama. He had five pass deflections and two forced fumbles in 2016, as well.
Strengths: The production in college was special. Barnett recorded double-digit sacks in all three of his seasons at Tennessee, and he averaged 17.3 tackles for loss per year. He was such a force in the backfield that teams would hammer the opposite side of the line, rather than run right at him—Alabama did this, to a degree, even though it had first round-bound tackle Cam Robinson to block Barnett.
He’s not a massive edge presence (6' 3", 259 pounds), but he plays with enough force to be able to hold the line. And as a pass rusher, it’s an effort-technique combo that gets the job done for him. When Barnett times the snap, he has the quickness to bend the edge and meet the QB at the top of his drop; when he’s met with a blocker, he unleashes an effective rip move to pull himself clear with his hands.
Barnett plays an intelligent DE, too. Teams occasionally could catch him with misdirection, but for the most part, he stayed home and stuck to his assignments. Many a read option headed his direction buckled early because Barnett snuffed out the initial move.
He also is willing to chase down the line and finish plays with second and third efforts. He is a solid, strong finisher when he gets the chance to square up a ball carrier.
Weaknesses: Barnett’s snap-timing ways make for an inconsistent ebb and flow to his game. When he nails it, he can shoot past offensive tackles in a heartbeat, but there certainly are plays when he guesses wrong and is among the last to react. This happened on an early snap in that same Alabama game, and tight end O.J. Howard was able to get on Barnett’s outside shoulder and wall him off for a run his direction.
Because his game is missing that otherworldly quick footwork, Barnett can be negated if the player blocking him lands the first blow. He doesn’t loop back and win inside enough yet, so teams with mobile quarterbacks can take advantage of his approach by allowing him to go wide and then attacking the vacated gap.
He may be limited to a hand-in-the-dirt, 4–3 DE role—there is not a whole lot of evidence that he could play in space as a 3–4 OLB.
NFL player comparison: Brandon Graham