Remember Derek Barnett? Defensive end for the Eagles. Young. Promising. Made a couple of earth-shaking plays during their Super Bowl run two seasons ago. Strip-sacked Case Keenum in the NFC Championship Game. Recovered the Tom Brady fumble that Brandon Graham forced.
Made one huge play, to help win a game for them, last season. Sacked Andrew Luck on fourth down with the game in the balance. Made the word “bend” trendy for a while, after the Eagles drafted him in 2017, because his ankles were so flexible that he could lower his center of gravity and still maintain his balance and speed as he hairpinned around offensive tackles. Barnett has great bend. Man, he can really bend when he gets to the edge.
Noun or verb, it worked every time. It’s still a popular word to use with him. “Nobody can bend like him, man,” his teammate Vinny Curry said the other day. “His bend is unbelievable.”
Now the Eagles’ regular season is less than two weeks away, and aside from a mid-practice fight with rookie offensive tackle Andre Dillard, Barnett has been a bit of a ghost, at least to those who aren’t bunkered with him inside the NovaCare Complex. He began practicing in 11-on-11s just two weeks ago, finally able after missing nine games last season because of a groin tear and shoulder surgery.
There’s a universal acknowledgement that the Eagles need Barnett not just to stay healthy this season, but also to become one of the NFL’s better pass rushers. Chris Long retired. Michael Bennett is in New England. Brandon Graham is 31. Barnett is 23. He had five sacks as a rookie in 15 games, 2½ last season in seven games. There should be a jump.
“He’s special, man,” Curry said. “He’s special. He’s definitely a special player. He’s a special human, a special guy, a special teammate. I’m excited for him, man. This is going to be his breakout season.”
That’s the thing about Barnett: All his teammates have spoken like this about him since he arrived. He does all the right things: works hard, doesn’t talk much, doesn’t talk about himself at all unless he’s asked, and even then it’s like squeezing juice from a rock. And he has those plays, those three significant plays — one that pretty much got the Eagles to the Super Bowl, one that pretty much won them the Super Bowl, one that won them a game that pretty much got them into the playoffs.
He has those flashes. Yet there’s that hesitation to expect consistent excellence from him, if for no other reason than, because of his injuries, he hasn’t provided it yet.
That hesitation is natural. Barnett was a first-round pick. He’s supposed to be terrific. The Eagles need him to be a double-digit-sack guy. But what if he’s not? He’s been hurt. What if he gets hurt again? What if it just never works out for him here? Maybe the Eagles should have signed a veteran pass rusher. Maybe they should trade for the Texans’ Jadeveon Clowney.
Those are questions worth asking, but at some point, a team’s coaches and talent evaluators have to trust in what they see from a relatively inexperienced player, and what the rest of us might not see. It’s one of the underrated and underappreciated aspects of building a successful team — that the quick fix isn’t necessarily the right fix, that a willingness to be patient and allow a player to develop is sometimes the right course of action, that there can be a difference between image/reputation and reality/future.
Jim Schwartz, for instance, became the Tennessee Titans’ defensive coordinator in 2001. By then, the best player he inherited had already had his best season. Jevon Kearse racked up 14½ sacks as a rookie in 1999, the NFL rookie record, then 11½ in 2000, then 10 in his first season under Schwartz. He played eight more years thereafter, four with the Eagles. He would always be Jevon Kearse, Elite Pass Rusher, even though he never had as many as 10 sacks again in any of those years.
Then, in 2005, the Titans acquired another defensive end, Kyle Vanden Bosch, who had been a second-round pick of the Arizona Cardinals, who had all of four sacks in three seasons with them, who had sat out a year with a torn ACL. In his first with the Titans, Vanden Bosch had 12½ sacks. Two years later, he had 12.
“Everybody’s a little different,” Schwartz said. “Some people are maturing physically. Some people are changing positions. Some people are just developing their technique and things like that. All that goes [into it], and not everybody is a finished product. Everybody is a little bit different. But there have certainly been guys [who] have come on and had great careers.”