Expectations naturally are high for Eagles defensive end Derek Barnett, the 14th pick in the 2017 draft. Barnett led all draft-eligible NCAA FBS players — including the No. 1 choice overall, Myles Garrett — with 33.0 career sacks, besting Reggie White’s school record at the University of Tennessee in the process.
There are some who think Barnett should start from Day 1, and maybe he will. The 21-year-old is certainly in the conversation.
Allowing Barnett to battle for and potentially win a starting job in training camp is one thing. Handing the job to him based on draft status and what he accomplished in college is quite another. The reality is very few players come into the league and have a huge impact rushing the passer as rookies, and to expect differently of Barnett is setting yourself up for disappointment.
Since 1982, only 31 players have recorded double-digit sacks in their rookie seasons, according to Pro Football Reference. Just 74 have managed at least 7.0. That’s basically two players per season, and that includes every position — defensive end, defensive tackle, linebacker, you name it.
And if we look at only the players who were selected No. 14 overall or higher, like Barnett, still just 30 finished with 7.0 sacks or more as rookies. That’s less than one per year.
The data can be deciphered a number of ways. Many rookies begin their careers as backups or in rotations. Some are in roles or schemes that grant more opportunities to get after the quarterback than others. Injuries. Busts.
Rushing the passer in the NFL is also incredibly difficult. A lot of college players are simply superior athletes compared to their competition, and whether it’s due to some gift of size, speed, easy schedule, any combination of the three or all of the above, they are dominant the moment they step on an NCAA field.
That isn’t often the case at the next level. The overwhelming majority of rookies take a year or two to develop before becoming productive pass rushers.
None of which is to say Barnett couldn’t be one of the exceptions. He didn’t experience a whole lot of trouble when upon his arrival at Tennessee, recording 10.0 sacks as a freshman. Playing three years in the SEC can’t hurt, either, as Barnett was constantly competing against some of the best young talent in the nation.
Even if Barnett wins the starting job, he will most likely be part of sort of rotation at defensive end. Vinny Curry and Chris Long should remain in the mix regardless, while Brandon Graham played 75 percent of the Eagles’ defensive snaps in 2016 – 18th in the NFL among D-linemen, per Football Outsiders. Unless Barnett is absolutely tearing it up, he won’t come near that figure.
Limited opportunities from being stuck in a rotation. The typical trajectory of a young pass rusher. Possibility of injuries or other unforeseen circumstances. Barnett has quite a bit to overcome to post an impressive sack total in ’17.
You hope to see Barnett push for upwards of 7.0 sacks, but few do. And if he winds up significantly under instead, that’s not necessarily a sign of trouble. There are high hopes Barnett can develop rapidly and contribute right away – yet those are far from given.