ARLINGTON, Texas – As with any fraternity – a police precinct, a newsroom, a football locker room – the rookie knows his peers have fully accepted him only when he becomes the butt of their chop-busting. And so it was that, as he donned a sleek black shirt-and-slacks combo early Monday after the Eagles' 37-9 victory over the Cowboys, as a group of reporters gathered around his locker at AT&T Stadium to ask him about his big game, Derek Barnett could hear Chris Long shouting from a few stalls away, "Ask him how he's been getting better since Week 2."
Week 2 was, Long later acknowledged, of no particular significance to him or Barnett. Long just wanted to make Barnett a little sheepish before people started asking him questions. It was the sort of thing a big brother would do to a little brother, and among the Eagles' defensive linemen, Barnett is everybody's little brother. He is still just 21 years old, the youngest player on the roster, but he has won his teammates' respect with his talent, his earnestness, and his production. Even though he was on the field for just 32 of the Eagles' 63 defensive snaps Sunday night, Barnett was a force, twice sacking Cowboys quarterback Dak Prescott, hitting him three times, and slapping the football out of Prescott's right hand for a fumble that linebacker Nigel Bradham returned for the game's final touchdown. He has 4.5 sacks this season – a first-round pick who has made an immediate contribution, a gift no NFL team can take for granted. The kid can play, and he wants to be good, and everyone who plays alongside him can see it.
"I just think he's one of the hardest-working rookies I've been around, one of the most coachable," Long said. "He just wants to do the right thing, and I'm glad he's getting success. A lot of times, unfortunately, the statistical success is the only thing people recognize, when there are so many factors that go into getting sacks. Now, he's getting the numbers, and that's good because he deserves it."
Barnett's second sack Sunday, the one on which he forced the fumble by Prescott, was emblematic of the reasons the Eagles drafted him: a pure speed rush from the right side in which Barnett went tooling around Cowboys left tackle Byron Bell. But his first sack was more impressive. The play call sent Prescott, at 6-foot-2 and 229 pounds one of the NFL's strongest and most mobile quarterbacks, on a bootleg. Once he broke through the line and found himself one-on-one against Prescott, Barnett had to combine aggressiveness and caution in the proper proportions. If Barnett chased him with too much abandon, Prescott might elude him and dash for a big gain. If Barnett gave him too wide a berth, Prescott might have enough time to find an open receiver.
Barnett made neither of those mistakes. He was just aggressive enough, tracking Prescott without giving him an escape route, dragging him down for a 12-yard loss.
"He's a big dude," said Barnett, who is 6-3 and 259 pounds himself. "He's kind of like a running back in the backfield who can throw. … Starts with having good eyes, getting off the rock, and when you finish on a quarterback, just squaring him up and running through him, not trying to arm-tackle."
The play was part of a continuum of improvement for Barnett that traces to the summer. If those who follow the Eagles closely, who were familiar with first-round flameouts such as Danny Watkins and Marcus Smith, had been conditioned to wonder how high expectations for him ought to be, Barnett himself had no doubt that he would help the Eagles right away – and should. "I mean, that's why they drafted me," he said. "They didn't draft me to come in and chill. That was my mindset, to just come in and work every day."
What was interesting was how he worked and why. From the moment they picked Barnett, the Eagles touted his skills as an edge rusher, particularly his ability to flex his ankles and maintain a low center of gravity as he curled around a tackle, like a speed skater hugging a turn. Throughout minicamp, organized team activities, and training camp, though, Barnett didn't often use that outside move. He drilled himself instead on other pass-rush techniques and strategies, knowing that he would need to master them, trusting that he would. He picks the brains of the Eagles' veteran defensive ends – Long, Brandon Graham, Vinny Curry – for subtler insights into gaining advantages.
"I'm not just running by people like in college," said Barnett, who racked up a school-record 33 sacks at Tennessee. "I'm doing different things. That's what I had to learn early on. The more things you do, the more they have to respect you."
He was talking about his opponents, the tackles who line up across from him. He could have been talking about his teammates, the men who already know how far he has come, before and after Week 2, and how far he might yet go.