The sky has always been the limit for Anthony Barr. With talent never really being an issue for the 6’4 240 lb. California native, the question was in what capacity would his unique skillset be utilized? That question has taken him on a rarely traveled road to stardom as an outside rush backer for Jim Mora Jr.’s UCLA defense.
Despite missing nearly all of his senior season, Barr was a 4 star, top 50 prospect (#5 overall athlete by Rivals.com and #10 OLB by Scout.com) for Los Angeles Loyola HS as a RB/LB/S. He would commit to UCLA and head coach Rick Neuheisel in January of 2010 over the likes of Notre Dame, Michigan, Cal, and USC. A strong relationship with Neuheisel and a chance to play offense was the deciding factor in Barr staying home in Los Angeles and playing for the Bruins.
Barr played 2 seasons under Neuheisel at UCLA while working as a running back and an F-back(which is a multi-purpose back designed to exploit mismatches). It didn’t work out quite as well as Barr, Neuheisel, or the UCLA faithful would have liked. The UCLA offense was abysmal in both 2010 and 2011, finishing 104th and 82nd in the nation in scoring offense. Their rushing output wasn’t quite as bad as a team, but Barr never found a way to really establish himself as a threat notching a mere 12 receptions for 82 yards and 15 carries for 54 yards….For his career…
After the inauspicious start, things began to change at UCLA. Going 21-30 in 4 seasons simply wasn’t good enough and Rick Neuheisel was fired after the 2011 season. Former Atlanta Falcons head coach and longtime NFL assistant Jim Mora Jr. was hired to take over the struggling program. The defensive minded Mora Jr. brought with him a fresh attitude and an attacking 3-4 defense. Anthony Barr quickly approached his new head coach and asked if he could make the move to the defensive side of the ball, Mora wisely agreed and as they say, the rest is history.
In his first start at outside linebacker against the Rice owls, Barr played a surprisingly sound game and posted 6 tackles, 1 for loss, and a sack. A nice game and a very good start to a new season and new position, but UCLA wouldn’t be playing Rice every week. Teams would begin to notice the emerging force on Mora Jr.’s defense and begin to game plan around him. The funny thing is, it did nothing to slow him down.
Over his next 5 games Barr notched 25 tackles, 9 tackles for loss, and 6 sacks. A match up with #15 Oregon State saw a near unstoppable Barr tally 7 tackles, 3 for loss, and 2 sacks. This has continued all season long. In fact there were only 3 games all year where he failed to register a sack and not a single game in which he didn’t make a tackle for loss. Despite making a living in opposing backfields, one of the more intriguing aspects of Barr's game is his ever improving coverage ability. In the two games against Stanford, Barr was largely responsible for covering their dynamic TE duo (Zach Ertz and Levine Toilolo) and did as good a job as just about any team has all year, helping hold the duo to 10 catches for 116 yards in 2 games.
So far on the season, not including the upcoming bowl game against Baylor, Anthony Barr has registered 73 tackles, 20 tackles for loss, and 13 sacks. He has played a key role in a resurgent UCLA defense, which has soared to a 9-4 record and a return to national relevance. The Question now becomes whether or not Barr decides to enter the NFL draft. He has been said to be leaning towards returning for his senior season, but will wait until after hearing from the NFL advisory committee. That’s where I believe Barr will make his decision to jump.
Players of similar ability, yet far less production have made the jump and been taken early, and even in the top 10. Names like Clay Matthews Jr., Jason Pierre-Paul and Aldon Smith come to mind. Speaking of Aldon Smith, I think that is the type of player you’re looking at when it comes to Anthony Barr. I’m certainly not expecting Barr to be on the cusp of breaking the NFL single season sack record in only his 2nd season, but expecting Barr to be a game changing pass rush threat early in his career is well within reason.
Technique is always an issue for a young defensive lineman/pass rusher when entering the NFL, and Barr is no exception. He could stand to improve his hand fighting once engaged with offensive lineman, but he generally does a nice job getting off blocks on his way to the QB. He’ll stack and shed well enough on the edge in the run game, and that will only improve once he gets into an NFL weight room. He has a natural burst and bend around the edge when rushing the passer. He’ll need to develop a larger compliment of pass rush moves at the next level. As of right now he’ll rely on a speed rush, bull rush, and his natural wiggle to get by offensive tackles. Speaking of which, that might be the most under-rated part of his rush ability. As an offensive player who’s used to running the football, making people miss comes naturally. Barr uses a variety of stutter steps and head fakes and really makes himself a small target for blockers to try and engage. Much like we’re witnessing with the 49ers Aldon Smith, NFL coaching along with further physical development will make Barr an imposing defensive presence at the next level.
Physically, he also has very long arms, which happen to be a key trait to so many great pass rushers like Smith, Julius Peppers, and DeMarcus Ware. Another key facet of Barr's game/skillset is his ability to close on a ball carrier. He shows that rare god given burst to quickly close the gap, explode into his opponent and create turnovers, which led to 4 forced fumbles on the year. Just watch him knock Matt Barkley out of the USC game and you’ll get a feel for his explosiveness.
The Question now moves to what teams will want from Anthony Barr and where they will project him. He projects well as a 3-4 OLB, but there is also a belief that he could eventually become an every down Defensive end in a 4-3. You could even make an argument for a 4-3 team keeping him as a strong side linebacker, who puts his hand in the dirt on 3rd down as a pass rushing defensive end. Von Miller has recently made this transition and made the Broncos look brilliant for doing it. Either way, I don’t believe there is a system in which Anthony Barr will not productively find a home. The NFL has become an athletic passing league in which teams constantly rely on exploiting mismatches, pass rushers are always at a premium, especially pass rushers who offer versatility.
It is firmly my belief that Anthony Barr will declare for the draft, absolutely kill the combine, and rocket up draft boards and be a top 10 selection in New York next April. I will agree that he is just scratching the surface of his talent, and that “surface” is the most productive season by an edge player in the Country. Barr should look no further than his neighboring USC to see what happens when you return to school for another year despite a first round draft grade. While you can argue that QB is a different animal, that’s fine, look no further than Florida State defensive end Brandon Jenkins. A top 15 draft grade entering the season, but a broken bone in his foot sent the Seminole pass rusher tumbling down draft boards and he now sits somewhere between the 2nd and 4th rounds. You need to strike while the Iron is hot and make your money when it is there to be made, nothing is guaranteed in the National Football League.