Analysis: Barr needs improvement in coverage

Anthony Barr shows plenty of talent and potential in several areas, but the stats and film review show he can improve quite a bit in coverage.

The Minnesota Vikings had high hopes for linebacker Anthony Barr and continue to rave about his success as a rookie.

But Barr is still a bit unrefined at the position, having played only two years of linebacker at UCLA before the Vikings made him the No. 9 overall pick of the draft in May. He has shown great burst and awareness with plays made in front of him and as a great pass-rushing weapon on blitzes.

He leads the team with 68 tackles, has two sacks, five quarterback hurries, two passes defensed and is tied for second in the NFL with two fumble recoveries. When the action is in front of him, he is turning into quite the playmaker.

But if the weakness in the rookie’s game appears to be in pass coverage.

Barr has given up 245 yards after the catch, second in the NFL among 4-3 outside linebackers, according to the analytics site Pro Football Focus, and quarterbacks have a 94.8 passer rating against him.

The strength and weakness of Barr in coverage was on display in the Buffalo Bills’ first drive Sunday. He was put in a tough situation on the first play trying to cover WR Sammy Watkins on a crossing route that went for 15 yards. Three plays later, with the action in front of him, he dropped FB Frank Summers for a 1-yard loss.

All total from the Bills game, a film review shows Barr’s coverage responsibilities catching 11 of 13 passes thrown their way for 82 yards.

Players have caught 90.7 percent of the passes thrown into Barr’s coverage area, fifth-highest in the NFL among outside linebackers, with Chad Greenway one spot away from Barr at 90.9 percent. Barr has the second-most targets in his area among the 4-3 outside linebackers with 43 targets and 39 catches, and the second-most missed tackles with 12, according to PFF’s stats.

Still, head coach Mike Zimmer continues to sing Barr’s praises, calling him “very good” in pass coverage.

“Barr’s a good player. He’s a good player and in a lot of different ways,” Zimmer said when we asked him about Barr on Monday. “He’s good in the running game. He’s good in pressure. He’s good in coverage. I can think of one time he was a little short in a coverage, but other than that he’s a good football player – really good football player. (He) has a chance if he continues to improve to be a great football player.”

Citing all of the troubling stats isn’t to say that Barr is a bad player, and in some instances Zimmer is right to take the PFF grades with a “grain of salt.” But where PFF’s value is interesting is in looking at the raw numbers – the times a player is targeted in coverage (and, yes, some of those are guesses), the receptions given up in those instances, the missed tackles and the yards after catch. All of those point to Barr needing some seasoning when in coverage.

There are times, however, when he looks very good, diving to knock away a pass that shows off his potential and athleticism.

Because of that, the ceiling is high with all his talent. Just ask Zimmer or defensive coordinator George Edwards, both of whom raved about Barr over the last two weeks. In addition to Zimmer’s praise, Edwards put Barr at the top of the potential list among linebackers he has coached.

“I’ve coached linebackers a long time in this league. He has as much potential to do that, especially coming out here with the production he’s had as a rookie. From that aspect of it, he’s ahead of the curve,” said Edwards, who has been a linebackers coach or defensive coordinator in the NFL since 1998. “With his professionalism, to be able to have that at such a young age, pay attention to details, be able to do it on the practice field, do it in a game.”

“He’s as good of a rookie as I’ve had in the past at the linebacker position.”

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