He hath heard that men of few words are the best men
-- The Boy on Nym, Henry V
Derek Barnett has little time for the media. When the Eagles defensive end has agreed to interviews, the answers are often brief, the exchanges occasionally awkward.
Brandon Graham once opined that his press-shy teammate wanted to meet expectations -- primarily his own -- before he spoke publicly about himself. But Barnett’s stoicism isn’t reserved strictly for his interactions with reporters. It’s just who he is.
“He’s obviously pretty quiet, a man of few words, but he’s a really an intelligent guy,” defensive line coach Matt Burke said last month. "He’s really great in the [defensive line] room. That’s kind of one thing for me that’s been a revelation.
“He doesn’t speak a lot, but when he does it’s a very sharp pointed question.”
Barnett, to no surprise, was unavailable to talk for this story. There has been limited access to players because of COVID-19, but the primary reason given for his silence has been the other theme from his first three seasons in the NFL: He’s injured again.
He did return to practice this past week, but only on a limited basis, because of a hamstring injury. On Saturday, he was ruled out for the opener at Washington. It will be the 14th game he has missed.
“What is holding him back is us,” coach Doug Pederson said Friday. “We’re making sure that he’s 100 percent.”
A month ago, the Eagles' narrative on Barnett was that he came into camp buoyed by being completely healthy for the first time in three years. Burke said that he was “hyper focused” and “locked in on wanting to be an elite player” several days before the first padded practice.
But when the team issued an injury report on the first day, Aug. 17, Barnett was listed as “week to week.” It’s been almost a month, however, as the clock continues to tick on a former first-round pick who has yet to justify the Eagles' investment.
Barnett has been solid when he has played, but his production hasn’t matched the excessive praise his coaches bestow upon him. There’s more to playing end than numbers, but he has finished in the middle of the pack in Pro Football Focus' pass-rush productivity analytics the last three seasons.
His 47 pressures (sacks, hits, hurries) out of 425 rushes placed him 59th out of 98 edge rushers with more than 115 pass-rush attempts last season. For comparison, Vinny Curry finished 10th (41 of 243) and Brandon Graham finished 34th (67 of 482).
In 2018, Barnett was tied for 52d out of 100 and in 2017 he was 45th out of 100 qualifying edge rushers. His run defense production has also been middling. Barnett is still only 24, but in May some questioned whether the Eagles should have picked up his fifth-year option, although they have until next offseason to change their minds.
A strong fourth season, though, could compel the team to sign Barnett to a lucrative long-term deal. With Graham and Curry plus-30 and a year older, he isn’t the future anymore. He needs to deliver upon his promise now.
“I’m still very bullish on Derek,” defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz said Tuesday. "I think he’s going to play a big part in what we do. He’s tough. He can rush the passer. He plays with great effort. Not the biggest guy, but he’s strong at the point of attack, and run game. I think he fits our system.
“He has had some unfortunate things with injuries, but he’ll put those behind him.”
Barnett missed only one game as a rookie, but he played through a core muscle injury that required surgery after the Eagles won the Super Bowl. His recovery extended into the preseason, but he returned for the 2018 opener and picked up where he left off eight months earlier.
But he tore his rotator cuff in the fifth week and played through it for two games, before he was shut down for the season. A year later, Barnett played in the first 12 games and saved his best performance for Game 12, when he recorded six tackles, a sack, another tackle for loss, and four quarterback hits against the Dolphins.
“Unfortunately, we lost, but I don’t think I’ve ever seen him play better,” Schwartz said. “Hurt his ankle in that game. … Got that thing taped up. They probably used about four or five rolls of tape to tape that thing up. Came out on one leg and was still playing really good.”
Barnett missed the next two weeks, though. He finished the season strong with two sacks and four hits in the division-clinching win over the New York Giants. But his latest setback suggests that there may be more to his injuries than coincidence. Could his relative lack of size -- he’s listed at 6-foot-3, 259 pounds -- have anything to do with his durability problems?
“I have had a lot of really big guys that have had injuries there too,” Schwartz said last month. “It’s a physical game. It’s a physical position.”
And there’s no denying that Barnett brings it every play. But his aggressiveness has also gotten him into trouble. He has already accumulated six personal foul penalties in his career. Many considered his hit on Packers running back Jamal Williams last season to be dirty.
Barnett, characteristically, had little to say about the incident.
“It is what it is,” he said then. “I’m not going to be tip-toeing out there, though.”
The same would apply to playing through injury. It is likely why the Eagles have been cautious with his return. Graham, who went through difficulties early in his career after being a first-round pick, has helped assuage any angst Barnett may have.
“Just keep on working, that’s all I keep telling him,” Graham said recently. "Like, ‘One day at a time, don’t look too far ahead, you still here,’ you know? ‘Everything is going to happen when it’s supposed to, you just got to make sure you stay ready for it.’
“I think he’s been having a great attitude towards it. He hasn’t seemed like he’s been down about anything as of [late].”