In keeping with the mantra of the 2014 offseason: the Falcons need to improve their pass rush. This is no secret, nor is it something the front office has shied away from admitting.
Obviously, this could be done via free agency. As Dave pointed out yesterday, Atlanta bringing Cincinnati Bengals defensive end Michael Johnson back "home" (grew up in Alabama, played for Georgia Tech) would make plenty of sense. And there could be other viable options on the market such as Michael Bennett and Justin Tuck, as well.
However, that can get expensive. It's not like the Falcons are the only team that would want a 27 year-old pass rusher, and so they may have to settle for only adding one through the draft. Atlanta picks at sixth overall, and so the three prospects being most widely discussed are Jadeveon Clowney, Khalil Mack and Anthony Barr. The consensus opinion on Clowney: he's the best available. But as for the other two, there are essentially two camps, with many not sold on Barr.
So why not analyze what the UCLA product brings and could bring to the table?
Anthony Barr, OLB, UCLA
Weight: 248 lbs.
Unofficial 40-yard dash: 4.48
2012: 82 tackles, 21.0 TFL, 13.0 sacks, 5 pass deflections, 4 forced fumbles, 4 QB hurries
2013: 66 tackles, 20.0 TFL, 10.0 sacks, 6 forced fumbles, 2 QB hurries, 1 pass deflection
**Most know Barr's back story, but if you don't: he began his career with the Bruins as a running back, but coaches moved him to the defensive side of the ball before his junior season. Obviously, the move worked and the production speaks for itself.
Physical traits: From a size standpoint, Barr has exactly the sort of frame you would look for in an edge rusher: long and lean. He also possesses excellent initial quickness off the line and can have an offensive tackle on his heels in the blink of an eye. Maybe he would add 5-10 pounds of weight before his beginning his rookie season in the NFL, but even if he doesn't, Barr still has the ideal body for the position, and his conditioning and stamina were excellent while at UCLA.
Pass rush: Clearly, this is where Barr's strengths lie. I'll emphasize again that in his first two years playing the position, he logged 23.0 sacks playing in a major conference. He can beat guys around the edge and he can execute the stunt quite well. But, as one might expect of a player with so little time at the position, his technique can be iffy and his repertoire of moves could certainly stand to grow. Barr can pursue to the quarterback in the open field with ferocity, resulting in the high number of sacks you see above. He's also shown the tendency to get his hands up at the line of scrimmage. But generating pressure on a consistent basis (6 "hurries" in two seasons) was tougher for him because the crafty offensive tackle, or the more technically sound blocker, could pick up on his tendencies. Showing more of a bend while rushing and better usage of arms/hands will be critical for him at the next level.
Run defense: Again, with Barr's speed and size, he has shown flashes of being a dominant run stopper. When he hits, he can hit hard and force the fumble. He will anchor himself against an attacking lineman fairly well. These are the traits that made him an asset on special teams at UCLA. But the concern for Barr here has to do with his tendency to over-pursue to the ball or even lose track of the carrier, leaving him liable for missed tackles in the open field or allowing the back to find the lane when he has a chance to seal it off.
Coverage: With his speed and open-field pursuit, Barr can hold his own in coverage, which as most know has become a more and more sought-after trait in NFL linebackers. He has the strength to deal out ball-jarring blows against a tight end or running back and the quickness to keep them covered. He wasn't called on to do this all that much at UCLA, but at the very least it doesn't stand out as a particular weakness for him.
Intangibles: Character-wise, nothing (at least publicly) comes to mind. But on the field, Barr's college lowlights almost exclusively have to do with his lack of extended time at the position: susceptibility on play-action/counter runs, lack of pass-rushing technique and play recognition. But with only two seasons playing linebacker, can you really blame him? Still, the multi-million-dollar question for Barr will be how he mentally adjusts to the NFL game and his prospective coaching staff. Thus far, he has relied more upon his extraordinary natural tools to get the job done most of the time.
Takeaway: Barr has simply got so, so much of that dangerous 'P' word: potential. The converse of that: "raw," the R-word scouts also love to use. But almost every player, no matter what his skill set, experiences a learning curve during the first couple of years in the league. We saw that with standout first-round pick Desmond Trufant. Heck, even Julio Jones had his share of growing pains.
And it is precisely that "R" word that has scouts looking at Barr and thinking "Aldon Smith" or "Clay Matthews" - players that came into the league full of potential but lacking in technique. Both have developed into elite players, and we would hope the addition of Bryan Cox will improve this team's ability to develop pass rushers and potentially do the same with Barr were he drafted.
I have no doubt that Barr will develop into an impact NFL pass rusher. If he makes it past the 10th overall pick in the draft, I'd be shocked. But can he contribute right away? As we saw with Jarvis Jones and Dion Jordan last year, there's far from any guarantee of instant success. I'd say the prospects of Barr excelling as a rookie are hazy at best, and it's why most prefer Clowney over him. It is infinitely more difficult to skate by on physical traits alone in the NFL.
But Barr would certainly fit in Nolan's scheme: he's had past success with a traditional 3-4 edge rusher while in Denver (Elvis Dumervil) and Miami (Cameron Wake). If the team wants to become more "3-4" than the "4-3 multiple" of 2013, then Barr would make a lot of sense, and even if the team moved him to defensive end I believe he could still succeed.
Coming off a 4-12 season, the coaches and front office may not feel content waiting around for him to develop. As for whether he's better than Mack or not, well, I'll save that opinion for the next post.
But let's hear you all weigh in: what do you think of Barr and his prospects in the NFL?