Top NFL Draft Prospects: Derek Barnett a productive, but polarizing NFL prospect
Barnett has a combined 20 sacks over his first two seasons, but is he a surefire first-round prospect?
In preparation for the 2017 football season, NFLDraftScout.com will profile the top NFL draft-eligible prospects with a different player profile each day. The series will culminate with the preseason top-20 prospects in August.
Derek Barnett, DE, Tennessee
Height: 6-3; Weight: 257; 40-yard dash: 4.75; Class: Junior; High School: Brentwood Academy HS (Nashville, Tenn.)
In today's pass-happy NFL, the only position more important than pass rushers is the quarterbacks they are chasing. Scouts will travel just about anywhere in search of a dynamic edge threat, and when a prospect is as productive as Barnett has been over his first two seasons, the anticipation of just how good he can be in the NFL can reach a fever pitch.
A highly touted prep out of Knoxville, Barnett signed with the Volunteers amid great fanfare, becoming the first true freshman to start a season opener in school history. Barnett recorded three tackles in the opener (against Utah State) and seemed to improve with each game, notching three more tackles (and his first tackle for loss) a week later against Arkansas State, five stops (and a tackle for loss) against Oklahoma in Week 3, eight tackles (and a tackle for loss) against Georgia a week later and his first sack (along with five other tackles and a tackle for loss) against Florida in his next game.
By the time he was done in 2014, Barnett had set new school records for the most tackles for loss (20.5) and sacks (10) by a true freshman -- all while starting just 10 of 13 games. And this wasn't a case of beating up weak non-conference opponents. Barnett, in fact, recorded an SEC-best 18 of his tackles for loss against conference foes, finishing atop a list which included future first-round picks Dante Fowler, Jr. (Florida), Shane Ray (Missouri), Bud Dupree (Kentucky) and fellow true freshman superstar Texas A&M Myles Garrett, among others.
Not surprisingly, Barnett received increased attention from opponents in 2015, which may have played a role in his starting off slowly, notching just one sack (and 2.5 tackles for loss) over Tennessee's first five games. Once the orange-and-white avalanche known as Barnett started rolling, however, it was trouble for opponents.
Barnett recorded nine sacks (and 10 tackles for loss) over the Vols' final eight games of the season, giving him almost identical numbers as a sophomore (69 tackles, 10 sacks) as those he'd posted a year earlier, earning him second-team All-SEC accolades by rival coaches and the Associated Press for the second consecutive year. One striking difference, however, was the drop in tackles for loss, where Barnett slipped from 20.5 in 2014 to "just" 12.5 last season.
Barnett sports a shorter, broader frame than most defensive ends. His time in the weight room is clear with his thick limbs and impressive functional strength, but Barnett carried a little extra weight around his middle, as well, last year. He missed much of spring practice this year due to an ailing shoulder, which could impact his conditioning and certainly will require thorough investigating by NFL teams at the combine, whenever Barnett elects to head to the NFL.
Barnett is a quality all-around edge rusher, winning with a combination of initial burst, power at the point of attack and hustle in pursuit. He is not truly explosive off the ball but times his get-off with the snap well, taking full advantage of the raucous crowds at Neyland Stadium.
Barnett chops at the hands of pass blockers, showing strength and hand placement to keep opponents from latching on. He accelerates smoothly around the edge, but isn't afraid to cut back inside between the tackle and guard if that is the closest route to the ball. This comfort in the pit allows Tennessee to slide Barnett inside to defensive tackle on occasion, where he shows impressive core strength when anchoring against the run.
Barnett creates a lot of tackle-for-loss opportunities for himself and teammates with his ability to get upfield, forcing running backs to either give up yardage in an attempt to run around him or cut back inside. He pursues well laterally and downfield, locating the ball quickly and showing good straight-line speed. Barnett is a physical tackler who is willing to leave his feet and wrap his arms to secure the immediate stop.
For all of his strengths and production, Barnett is not a flawless prospect, and he could be somewhat polarizing in scouting circles. Some of his statistics are manufactured, as the Vols do a nice job of creating matchups for him, moving him from his customary right defensive end position to the left side and allowing him to rush out of either the two and three point stances.
Barnett often guesses at the snap count, drawing some penalties for offsides when he gets too early of a jump and sometimes being the last one off the ball. He needs to do a better job of recognizing cut blocks, showing only average lateral agility and balance to avoid them, at this time. Barnett does not possess ideal flexibility to flatten around the corner and explode towards the quarterback, rounding off his rush. He needs to do a better job of stripping the ball, forcing just one fumble, thus far.
Barnett's production thus far speaks for itself. He is currently tied with legendary Vols defensive tackle John Henderson for sixth all-time at Tennessee with 20 sacks. Entering just his true junior season, Barnett is within reach of the late, great Reggie White's all-time Tennessee record of 32 career sacks.
Optimism is high that Barnett's numbers could increase this season under new defensive coordinator Bob Shoop, whose aggressive scheme helped numerous defensive linemen at Penn State achieve career-high marks last season, including former backup Carl Nassib winning the Lombardi Award as the nation's top lineman with an FBS-leading 15.5 sacks.
Barnett will certainly have help. Linebacker Jalen Reeves-Maybin and cornerback Cameron Sutton are two of the best at their respective positions, as well, making Knoxville a must-stop this fall for NFL scouts on the lookout for playmaking defenders.
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