The NFL is ultimately about performance. The best teams ignore salary, draft position and past performance in lieu of guys who just get it done on the field. Make no mistake - the highly paid guys and first round picks will always get the first opportunities. When they call your number, though, you had better be ready to make the most of it.
This past Sunday, Joplo Bartu did just that.
Before this off-season, virtually no one had heard of this free agent out of Texas State University. As training camp progressed and boiled over into the preseason, word started to emerge that this UDFA rookie was impressing the coaches and anyone else watching. Once the preseason games began, Bartu started showing he was more than just a camp star - delivering in the preseason games against 2s and 3s. But all of that points to a potential backup - and that's not what we're discussing here.
In the third preseason game, Bartu was taking snaps with the first team defense - and was used as a coverage linebacker on third downs, in lieu of both Dent and Nicholas. Make no mistake: this sequence of events sent a clear and strong message. Joplo is not simply a potential backup - he's a potential starter. The impression Bartu was leaving on observers was that he was very good in coverage - often blanketing tight ends in camp and in preseason games. But his 62 tackles in his last 4 college games indicated he is also solid in run stopping as well.
After the Saints loss, many Falcons fans wondered why Dent continued to see snaps in passing situations while the impressive rookie warmed the bench. While Coach Smith indicated he didn't want to put a rookie in that hostile an environment for his first NFL snaps, the Rams game served to show that the coaches still firmly believed in Bartu.
In Sundays win against the Rams, Bartu emerged. On the Rams very first play on offense, Bradford hit running back Richardson with a short pass to the left. Bartu showed tremendous burst and dropped the running back for a 3 yard loss.
And so the legend begins.
For the day, Bartu finished playing 63 of the 77 defensive snaps (83 percent) and finished with 6 tackles, with 2 of those being for a loss. Additionally, according to PFF, Bartu graded out strongly with a +1.3 overall score and registering 3 stops. That grade also showed he was formidable in not only run stopping, but also graded out positively in pass protection - something Falcons fans should take particular note of. Rams TE Jared Cook was largely absent for the game, registering just 1 reception for 10 yards, and much of that is due to the play of Joplo.
For me, Bartu also passes the eyeball test. Anytime I saw a defensive play, he seemed to be right around it, if not involved directly. This kid seems to have a nose for the football - something that just can't be taught. And to think: this was his first real NFL game. One in which he took more snaps than the two veterans that are technically ahead of him on the depth chart.
While it may be too early to say that Joplo Bartu is going to be an all-pro, it's hard to ignore what he's done in a very short period of time. It is hard enough to make an NFL roster as an undrafted free agent. Even harder to make the game day roster and nearly impossible to register significant playing time. But that is exactly what Bartu has done. And not only has he done it, but he's already performing at a level that bests some of his veteran peers on the team.
I'm not one for anointing guys too early, but it really does appear that the sky is the limit for this emerging star.