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What to do about Derek Barnett: Should the Eagles sign him to an extension or wave bye-bye?

The defensive end hasn’t lived up to the team’s first-round expectations, but can they really afford to get rid of him?

Derek Barnett sacks Cincinnati Bengals quarterback Joe Burrow in a game last season.
Derek Barnett sacks Cincinnati Bengals quarterback Joe Burrow in a game last season.Read moreTIM TAI / Staff Photographer

Derek Barnett hasn’t lived up to the Eagles’ expectations in his first four NFL seasons. But has he played poorly enough for them to throw in the towel on a guy they selected with the 14th pick in the 2017 draft?

Given the fact that they traded away Carson Wentz just two weeks ago, it’s hard to believe the Eagles would be willing to turn around and wave bye-bye right now to yet another first-round draft pick. But it’s hard to believe a lot of things about this football team these days.

The Eagles picked up the fifth-year option on Barnett’s rookie contract last spring, which means that if he still is on the roster at the start of the league year on March 17, they will have to pay him $10 million this season. That would be a heavy burden for a cap-strapped football team.

There are two ways to avoid that. One would be to sign Barnett to a long-term extension that includes a lower first-year salary-cap charge. The other would be to trade or release him. And trading him really isn’t a palatable option since the team wouldn’t get much for him.

If the Eagles were in better cap shape, they might consider letting Barnett play this year for $10 million, then make a decision on his future next year when his contract is up, much like they did two years ago with their 2015 first-round pick, wide receiver Nelson Agholor.

But they aren’t in good cap shape, and really can’t afford to be having Barnett taking up such a large percentage (approximately 6%) of their cap room. He had just 5 ½ sacks last year and was rated 36th out of 121 edge rushers in pass-rush productivity by Pro Football Focus.

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According to two league sources familiar with the situation, the Eagles have had discussions with Barnett’s agent, Drew Rosenhaus, about an extension, which would seem to indicate that their preference is to keep him.

Barnett hasn’t been a bust, but he also hasn’t been the difference-maker the Eagles had hoped he’d be when they drafted him out of the University of Tennessee, where he broke Reggie White’s school sack record.

He has just 19½ sacks in four seasons with the Eagles, which is 42nd among NFL edge rushers during that period. Last season, he was tied for 31st in sacks among edge rushers and was tied for 47th in total pressures with 32.

“To me, he doesn’t look any different as a pass rusher now than he did when he came out four years ago,” NFL Network analyst Brian Baldinger said. “I see a guy that when he stabs you [with his hands], he’s got some power to him. But I don’t see any quickness to him. I don’t see any quickness to his game.

“There are guys that can consistently get pressure on a quarterback. I don’t see that with Derek.”

After finishing a disappointing 4-11-1 last season, the Eagles are rebuilding, or at least undergoing a fairly significant renovation.

Barnett is only 24 – he won’t turn 25 until late June – which means there is reason to believe – or at least hope – that, no matter how unimpressed you’ve been with his play the last four years, he will get better.

In 2010, the Eagles selected Brandon Graham with the 13th pick in the draft. Graham had just 11 1/2 sacks in his first four seasons. He didn’t get his 19th until his sixth year in the league.

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Many critics, particularly those who felt the Eagles should have drafted safety Earl Thomas or defensive end Jason Pierre-Paul, rushed to judgment on Graham.

But he developed into one of the more dependable edge rushers in franchise history and had that memorable game-clinching strip-sack of Tom Brady in Super Bowl LII. Barnett, you may recall, recovered that game-clinching strip-sack.

Graham was not selected to the Pro Bowl until last season. And he never has had more than 9½ sacks in a season. But he’s been a key part of the Eagles’ success over the last decade and was well worth the 13th pick in the draft.

We don’t know yet what kind of defense the team’s new defensive coordinator, Jonathan Gannon, intends to run.

Six weeks after his hiring, Gannon still has not spoken with reporters. He spent the last three years as the cornerbacks coach in Indianapolis under defensive coordinator Matt Eberflus.

Eberflus’s defense, much like the one run by former Eagles defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz, is front four-centric with limited blitzing.

If the Eagles were to release or trade Barnett, it would leave them very thin at defensive end. They are expected to bring back Graham. But he turns 33 in April and doesn’t figure to be around for more than another year or two.

Josh Sweat, a fourth-round pick in 2018 who will be 24 later this month, had a career-high six sacks last season and has shown steady improvement. But beyond that, there isn’t much. Genard Avery, for whom the Eagles gave up a fourth-round pick in a 2019 trade, had just 1½ sacks and nine total quarterback pressures in 11 games last season. Joe Ostman rotated between the practice squad and the 53-man roster last year and played 29 snaps in three games. So, whether Barnett ends up staying or going, defensive end is a position that the Eagles are going to have to address going forward.

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Injuries have been a concern with Barnett. He’s missed 16 games in four years, including 10 in 2018 with a torn rotator cuff.

He played much of his rookie year with a sports hernia. He missed two games in 2019 with an ankle injury and three last year with hamstring and calf injuries. He’s played more than 50% of the Eagles’ defensive snaps just once – in 2019, when he played 69% of the snaps. Barnett had 6½ sacks and finished 10th in quarterback hits among edge rushers with 14 that year.

Even healthy, though, Barnett hasn’t been a dominating player. The 6-foot-3, 260-pounder isn’t a quick-twitch rusher. At Tennessee, he primarily used a potent dip-and-bend move to beat offensive tackles. Had 33 sacks for the Vols, one more than Hall of Famer White.

But he hasn’t really diversified his pass-rush portfolio since being drafted by the Eagles. That said, his pressure rate over the last two years – one pressure every 9.0 pass-rush opportunities – isn’t that far behind Graham’s (1/7.2) and is actually a hair better than Fletcher Cox’s (1/9.1).

“I was breaking down [Bengals defensive end] Carl Lawson, who was taken in the fourth round of the Barnett draft,” Baldinger said. “Lawson was second in the NFL to [the Steelers’] T.J. Watt in quarterback hits last year. He didn’t really have anybody opposite him in Cincinnati. But the guy beat Jason Peters like a drum. He beat [Steelers left tackle] Alejandro Villanueva like a drum. He beat [Browns left tackle] Jedrick Wills like a drum.

“When I compare Lawson with Barnett, they’re not even comparable. Lawson looks like he could be the next Shaq Barrett to me. And I have not yet seen anything from Barnett that has shown me he can be in that kind of category.

“I just don’t think there’s a whole lot there where you can say, ‘OK, he’s our anchor.’ He doesn’t look like a guy that can get you 10 sacks a year right now.”

Baldinger thinks Sweat has a bigger upside than Barnett.

“He’s got more quickness than Barnett,” he said. “He flashes more and has better speed off the edge. You just don’t see Barnett beating a lot of guys off the edge.

“It looks like he bends a little better. I thought Barnett, when he was at Tennessee, could bend pretty good. But I don’t see a lot of that right now. I don’t know if that’s because of the injuries or what. But I don’t see a guy you have to concern yourself with. I don’t see a guy you have to chip or double-team or anything like that right now.”