Just a few days into Eagles training camp, Derek Barnett vs. Josh Sweat has become an intriguing and underrated position battle.
Even if the Eagles don’t want to call it that.
“I view both of those guys as starters,” Eagles defensive coordinator Jonathan Gannon said. “I think you guys should see the switching of groups, like I said, period by period, day by day, week by week.
“I don't really look at that as a competition. We're just out here trying to get better, like everybody. We feel really good about that entire group and those two guys.”
The Eagles have shouted from the mountaintops that Andre Dillard and Jordan Mailata are in an open position battle for the left tackle job, so the fact that they don’t want to call Barnett vs. Sweat a competition is slightly curious. Perhaps it’s because the loser of Dillard vs. Mailata will head to the bench (or the trade block) and the winner of Barnett vs. Sweat will still play a major role in the team’s defense in 2021.
But this definitely feels like a competition.
And it was extremely notable on Wednesday that when the Eagles took the field for their first practice of their 2021 training camp, it was Josh Sweat lining up at the right defensive end position instead of Barnett, the first-round pick who has held that job for the past three seasons. Maybe it was a pat on the back for Sweat, maybe it was a wakeup call for Barnett, maybe we were just reading into it too much.
The two split first-team reps on Day 1 but Sweat was clearly first. They split first-team reps on Day 2, but Barnett was clearly first. On Day 3, Brandon Graham got a rest day so they were both with the first team; that didn’t tell us much.
In any case, for the first time since 2017, it doesn’t appear that Barnett is going to be handed the starting gig.
The Eagles will, of course, need both Barnett and Sweat in 2021, so maybe the competition doesn’t matter too much right now. But last year Barnett was a starter and played 49% of the Eagles defensive snaps, while Sweat was the third defensive end and played 38%. So there is a difference, or at least there was with the last staff.
And this could be about more than just starting roles and playing time in 2021. Both players are entering contract years this season, so there’s a chance just one of them will be back in 2022. Sweat is just 24 and Barnett is just a young 25, so they both have long careers ahead of them.
“The sky’s the limit for those couple of guys,” veteran free agent pickup and four-time Pro Bowl defensive end Ryan Kerrigan said on Friday. “I’ve been watching for the last couple of years ever since they’ve been in the league. They’ve been some of my favorite guys to watch on tape.”
The simplest way to explain the last few years for Barnett and Sweat is that one is a first-round pick who has been OK but has underachieved, while the other is a fourth-round pick who has overachieved in recent seasons despite limited playing time.
This season, Barnett has a base salary of $10 million on the fifth-year option of his rookie contract and Sweat has a base salary of just $920,000 as he enters the fourth year of his rookie contract as a fourth-round pick. So there’s no question Sweat has been and still is the bigger bargain.
Either way, if both produce at just an adequate level in 2021, given their upside and age, they’re going to get lucrative deals on the open market in 2022.
It’s easy to see why many fans have been clamoring for Sweat to get more playing time. He has been very good in his somewhat limited opportunities. In fact, he finished last season with 6 sacks, one every 70.2 snaps, while Barnett had 5 1/2, one every 97.3 snaps. But was Sweat’s production a product of his limited time or can we project that production over the course of a season with more snaps? That’s a big question the Eagles will have to answer.
At 6-5, 251 pounds, Sweat stands out in a crowd. After what was basically a redshirt season in 2018, Sweat put on weight and became a contributor in Year 2. He had 4.0 sacks in 2019 and 6.0 in 2020 and it appears that he’s ready for another jump. Simply put: Sweat deserves more playing time.
During Barnett’s career, it’s not like he’s been a bad player. Has he lived up to his status as the No. 14 overall pick in 2017? No. Has he lived up to his college reputation as the guy who broke Reggie White’s sack record at Tennessee? No to that too. So if you expected Barnett to become a star, a totally reasonable expectation for a first-round pick, he has been a disappointment.
But he’s no bust either. While he’s dealt with injuries, Barnett has still been disruptive with 65 quarterback hits in his career. Since 2017, when he was drafted, he’s second among Eagles in that category behind just Fletcher Cox. And Barnett has 7 more QB hits than Graham in 15 fewer games played. Now, QB hits obviously don’t mean as much as sacks, but it at least shows that Barnett is doing some good things out there, even if he’s not always finishing. He’s getting pressure.
“You see Derek and the way he can bend and as physical as he is for a guy that can bend like he can,” Kerrigan said. “Then you see Sweat, I had no idea Sweat was as big as he was until I got here and I saw him up close. I was like, ‘Wow, that dude moves like that on film and is that big.’ I mean, he’s going to be a problem for years to come.”
So far, during the first few days of training camp, both Sweat and Barnett have had very strong moments. And they’re going against the two guys — Dillard and Mailata — who are battling for that left tackle job.
That left tackle battle is the top one of training camp, but this one isn’t far behind. No matter what you call it.
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