One of the most exciting things about each new football season is watching rookies develop and seeing whether or not they can elevate their teams to new heights. This year, much of that attention is on Derek Barnett, who the Eagles are counting on to be a key contributor to their pass rush rotation.

Since flashing versus backup-level preseason competition, the man who broke Reggie White’s career sack record at the University of Tennessee is still searching for his first on the NFL stage.

Should we start to panic? No.

Here’s why:

Looking Beyond the Sacks

Sacks are considered the premier statistic or primary benchmark for defensive lineman, but they really shouldn’t be. Creating disruption is the primary goal of a defensive lineman. Forcing the quarterback to move from his platform or scramble from the pocket, forcing hurried or errant throws, and hitting them and impacting their delivery all cause disruption.

Sacks are more of a bonus, like that one tweet that unexpectedly goes viral. You know you’ve written better tweets, but for some reason, this one got noticed. It’s out of your control. All you can do is write the tweet; it’s up to everyone else to take it from there.

For pass rushers, sacks are just one outcome to an equation littered with variables that are out of their control. Defeating their opponent, while maybe the most difficult, is the only variable a pass rusher can regulate. Other variables such as the play call, protection, quarterback movement or play of the secondary all must line up perfectly on the same play for a sack to happen.

When evaluating Barnett’s first four games, it’s important to look beyond his sack number.

A Few More Pieces of Context

  1. Through the first four games, Barnett has only played 97 defensive snaps, good for 40% overall compared with 70% for Brandon Graham and 60% for Vinny Curry. So, his opportunity is lower than a typical starter.
  2. Of those 97 snaps, 23 of them were running plays, which leaves only 74 plays in which he had a chance to make a pass rushing impact.
  3. In his first game versus Washington, he faced arguably the best left tackle in football in Trent Williams. That’s a tough task for any pass rusher, let alone a rookie.
  4. The Giants game was a complete wash for the entire defensive line given how quickly and consistently Eli Manning got the ball out of his hands. In addition, due to the struggles of left tackle Ereck Flowers, the Giants also used a tight end or running back to chip Barnett and Curry throughout the game.

Taking all of the above into consideration, it’s impossible (and still way too early) to make any definitive judgments on Barnett’s ability or ceiling from just four games. But we can certainly evaluate what he has done with his limited opportunities, so I did.

Here’s what I saw:

Versus the Run

With all of the focus on his ability to rush the passer or on his lack of sacks, Barnett’s ability as a run defender has really flown under the radar. Through his first four games, he’s been able to make quite a few impact plays.

On this first play versus Washington, Barnett does a great job chasing down the runner from the backside and preventing a cutback lane. This is more of an effort play, but he shut the door quickly on the cutback and took a good angle so as not to allow the runner to get back outside of him and into open space:

Here he is against Kansas City, again taking away the cutback lane versus the outside zone play:

The next one was a draw play from this past Sunday. The Chargers’ right tackle waves Barnett by him a little prematurely and Barnett cleans up the play in the backfield. Barnett didn’t physically do anything special on this play, but showed really good awareness and self-restraint. For a rookie, anxious to pick up his first sack, he showed really good discipline here in staying focused on the ball and not getting wide-eyed and excited that he’s in the backfield.

This feels like a play that Curry would’ve been fooled on. I could see him bypassing the runner to get to the quarterback:

Barnett shows really good awareness on this next play as well. Watch how quickly he reads the inside handoff and scrapes over the top and forces Melvin Gordon to cut outside.

It is very likely that this was not his responsibility on the play (typically the defensive end is responsible for containing the play from the outside), but look at the hole Gordon had if Barnett wasn’t there to force him to bounce back outside. This is a next level play by Barnett.

Lastly, Barnett’s most impressive play versus the run came in week one. The Redskins ran a power play to his side, but Barnett rips right through a Vernon Davis block, blows up the pulling blocker to clog up the play, and then makes the tackle in the backfield:

These were just Barnett’s highlights, but there were many other plays where he simply executes on his responsibility. Overall, he has done surprisingly well the run.

Rushing the Passer

Leading up the draft, one of the primary criticisms of Barnett was his lack of complementary pass rush moves he had in his arsenal. He had one really good trait (his ability to bend around the edge) that he used to exploit his opponents.

While that trait certainly translates to the NFL, it won’t work consistently enough if he doesn’t give his opponents something else to think about. To this point in the season, he hasn’t really done that. When his ability to bend off the edge is the one thing he relies on, offensive tackles can overplay it without fear of being exposed to their inside.

Here is what that looks like:

With no fear of being beaten inside, Williams overplays to his outside and easily rides Barnett well beyond the pocket.

Here’s another example:

Having said that, he may only have one signature move, but it is elite and it does work on occasion. There have been several instances where Barnett beat his man, but one of the other variables mentioned above prevented him from getting home.

On this first play versus Washington, Barnett gets chipped inside by Jamison Crowder, but does a great job dipping his shoulder and showing off his signature bend to beat Williams anyway and comes dangerously close to a sack fumble on Kirk Cousins.

His ability to be almost parallel to the ground while still having the power in his ankles to continue driving towards the quarterback is insane.

On this next one, he beats Williams again around the edge, but just misses the sack because Graham forces Cousins out of the pocket:

Again, he did his job. The result was out of his control.

On the next play, versus Kansas City, Travis Kelce knocks him down inside, but he still beats his man around the edge and just misses the sack, this time because Nigel Bradham forced Alex Smith from the pocket:

Versus the Chargers, he wins again around the edge, this time from the left side, but Phillip Rivers gets the ball out too quick:

These last two sequences were big impact plays by Barnett, but someone else ended up getting the credit.

On the first one, Barnett puts a really good stutter step move on Chiefs tackle Eric Fisher, beats him clean around the edge, and forces Smith to step up into the waiting arms of a blitzing Mychal Kendricks:

Lastly, on the Chargers’ first drive, Rivers was forced from the pocket and eventually fumbled when Chris Long swatted his arm from behind. The reason he left the pocket in the first place, though, was because Barnett did a great job converting speed to power and driving the right tackle right back into Rivers’ lap. Oh, and guess who recovered the fumble?

The results haven’t been there yet for Barnett, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t coming. He is a high-energy end who is always finishing plays. In addition, as we saw above, he may be a bit of a one trick pony at this point in his career, but that one trick is elite. That, combined with his high-energy play, will result in guaranteed production year-in and year-out. The floor is there.

To get to that next level as a pass rusher, though, he still needs to add an effective inside counter to his arsenal. Forcing opponents to respect his ability to go inside will further expose them to his bread and butter move.

Barnett is only 21 years old and, by all accounts, is a Carson Wentz-like worker. With his combination of natural talent, effort on the field and work ethic off of it, the future is still really bright for Derek Barnett.

We just need to be patient.