Nobody ever really expected Derek Barnett to be Reggie White, even if Barnett’s 33 sacks did break White’s 32-sack record at Tennessee the season before the Eagles selected Barnett 14th overall in the 2017 draft.
But when Barnett embarked on his fourth Eagles season last week, he was 110 career sacks behind White’s Eagles record of 124, and that was concerning for a team that needs to develop a younger core to compete for another Super Bowl.
The cheers from the crowd of 70,000 or so Eagles fans who gathered along the Benjamin Franklin Parkway to greet Barnett’s selection 41 months ago no longer echo; many fans find Barnett’s tenure exasperating. The confetti that dropped from the rafters of U.S. Bank Stadium a little less than 32 months ago, after Barnett scooped up the pivotal Tom Brady fumble that Brandon Graham forced, has long since been swept away.
Barnett, who turned 24 in June, hasn’t been a bad NFL defensive end. But since Super Bowl LII, he has not often been a difference-maker. More crucially, he has missed 13 of the team’s last 34 games with various injuries. A hamstring sidelined him for almost all of training camp this year, and kept him out of the season opener.
When Barnett, listed at 6-foot-3, 259, got into Sunday’s loss to the Rams for 33 snaps, he clearly wasn’t sharp.
“I don’t think the conditioning aspect was a factor," Barnett said Thursday. "More technique stuff, like eyes and hands.”
Asked about the lengthy recovery from his most-recent injury, and the frustration that must be building from having spent so little time healthy the last few years, Barnett alluded to a “small setback” during the preseason but did not elaborate.
“It was difficult, but I’ve had injuries before. I can’t let that affect me. … I can’t complain,” Barnett said. “What’s the point of complaining about it? Football is a violent sport. So you can either complain, or you can get better.”
Fans and reporters often lump Barnett in with a group of unimpressive recent draft picks who have contributed to the Eagles' problems trying to sustain their 2017 success. Barnett and fifth-round linebacker Nate Gerry are the only members of that draft class still on the team; Sidney Jones, Rasul Douglas, Mack Hollins, Donnel Pumphrey, Shelton Gibson, and Elijah Qualls are gone.
Asked whether he still considers himself a young player, Barnett said: "I consider myself a four-year player now. … I feel like my expectation for myself is to come in here every day and get better. I can’t let expectations of other people drive me. I’ve got to be able to drive myself off my expectations.
“I try to be where my feet are in the moment. Not get too far ahead, or don’t look in the past too much.”
Not only has Barnett missed those 13 games since the start of the 2018 season, he often has tried to play banged-up and hasn’t had the impact as a starter that he had in a part-time role as a rookie. In 2017, Pro Football Focus gave Barnett a 67.8 overall rating, 66.5 as a pass-rusher. In 2018, it was 67.5 and 62.3. In 2019, 59.2 and 62.3. In last week’s rout, he graded at 40.2 and 58.3.
Barnett did notch 6½ sacks last season, besting his rookie total of five. But he also played 69% of the defensive snaps vs. 41% as a rookie. Tellingly, when defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz reached for an anecdote recently to illustrate his regard for Barnett, Schwartz referenced how well Barnett played last season against Miami “on one leg” after suffering an ankle injury during the game.
“I’m still very bullish on Derek,” Schwartz said. "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.”
Since he first put on that Eagles baseball cap, standing in front of the Art Museum, Barnett said he has “learned that the pro game is very physical and very fun. And you got to bring it every week, and there’s no off week in this.”
This week, with the 0-2 Eagles facing the 0-2 Bengals, Barnett said his focus remains tight. He isn’t concerned with his stats or his future here. The team picked up his fifth-year option. But given the age of the some of the defensive line’s stalwarts, that was almost automatic. It didn’t mean management was deliriously happy.
“If we get a lot of sacks, that’d be lovely. But at the end of the day, we’re trying to get a W. That’s what matters the most right now,” Barnett said. “Moving forward, we still have everything we want in front of us, and it’s on us to go out and attack it this week.”