PHILADELPHIA - Sometimes expectations define NFL careers.
Had Derek Barnett been a third-round pick back in 2017, the fourth-year defensive end would likely be lauded for being a major contributor in a more than solid edge rotation.
As a former 14th overall pick, however, Barnett is viewed through a different lens, one that says the University of Tennessee product, who broke all of Reggie White's sack records in Knoxville, should be a consistent double-digit sack guy.
Injuries, particularly a shoulder surgery and ankle issue, have derailed Barnett's ascent as a player at times and to date, he topped out at 6.5 sacks while playing 14 games and 69 percent of the defensive snaps last season.
As we approach the midway point of the 2020 campaign on Sunday night against Dallas, Barnett is already on pace to top that number with 3.5 sacks despite missing the opener and being somewhat limited early in the season due to a hamstring injury.
Barnett is back in his familiar position as the starting right end but the improvement of third-year pro Josh Sweat and the return of capable veteran Vinny Curry from his own hamstring issue has Jim Schwartz and defensive line coach Matt Burke feeling very comfortable with a four-man rotation spearheaded by Brandon Graham.
Through seven weeks Barnett has played 49 percent of the defensive snaps and while that was skewed by the early limitations, it's doubtful Barnett will get into the 70 percent range unless injuries come into play. That said, efficacy with the number of reps he gets is more important to those inside the NovaCare Complex.
“He missed most of training camp with an injury and sort of started slow, but we’re seeing the player that we expect with him, and he’s been productive for us on the field," Schwartz said. “Always plays hard. Always plays tough.”
A simplification of a larger pass-rushing toolbox has helped Barnett, according to Burke and that was highlighted against the New York Giants in Week 7 when Barnett finished with three pressures - a sack and two quarterback hits on Daniel Jones - in just 23 pass-rushing attempts, an impressive 13.0 percent pressure rate.
“I thought Derek played a hell of a game Thursday night," Burke said, "I think it was one of his better games that I’ve seen him play.
"... Sometimes when you’re trying too many things, you can’t master those moves. And sometimes that slows your brain down in terms of ‘I’m trying to do this, this, this, and I’m stuttering.’ So for him to just streamline his thought process, he’s been really good in terms of just having a definitive plan of attack every week.”
Barnett isn't Dwight Freeney but an impressive spin move is now the counterpunch to a natural bend on the edge that Lane Johnson has compared to Von Miller.
“I think one of the things with Derek that Matt and (director of player personnel/senior defensive assistant])Jeremiah (Washburn) have done a really good job with is his repertoire, is sort of down a little bit, down in numbers," said Schwartz. “He doesn’t need a whole lot."
According to Schwartz, Barnett "hasn’t been wasting a lot of time in his pass rush."
"He’s been closing ground, where in the past he was probably foot-faking a little too much and not putting the pressure on those guys," said the DC.
The next step is more consistency in the pass rush. Barnett had big games against Cincinnati (1.5 sacks) and San Francisco (1.0 sacks) but struggled a bit against Pittsburgh and Baltimore, two top-level teams with Pro Bowl left tackles in Alejandro Villanueva and Ronnie Stanley, the latter perhaps the best in the NFL.
The Eagles' brass has told a similar story when it comes to Sweat, a rangy player who has stepped up in his third season. Sweat has also played 49 percent of the defensive snaps, a number bolsted by Barnett's hamstring issues and produced in a similar fashion to Barnett with 3.0 sacks, six tackles for loss, seven QB hits, and two forced fumbles.
In Sweat's case, repetitive motion when it comes to technique was the hurdle.
For Barnett, it's keeping things simpler.
John McMullen contributes Eagles coverage for SI.com's EagleMaven and is the NFL Insider for JAKIB Media. You can listen to John every Tuesday and Thursday on "The Middle" with Eytan Shander, Harry Mayes, and Barrett Brooks on SportsMap Radio and PhillyVoice.com. He’s also the host of Extending the Play on AM1490 in South Jersey. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @JFMcMullen
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