Derek Barnett says he doesn’t feel any added pressure or added expectations.
You would certainly understand if he did.
Because Michael Bennett is gone. Chris Long is gone. And after an injury-shortened 2018 season, Barnett will have a huge role as he enters Year 3 as an etched-in-stone starter.
Make no mistake about it: the Eagles need a big year from Barnett.
“No, I don’t feel like there’s a lot on me,” Barnett said last week. “But every time I’m on the field I want to perform my best and be the best football player I can be for my teammates because they drafted me for a reason. Absolutely, every time I step on the field, I feel like I have to perform well. Don’t get me wrong.
“But pressure-wise, nah, there’s no pressure. You just trust your training and go out there and let it loose. We’ve been playing football since we were little. It ain’t nothing new. We wake up and this is what we do for a living. It’s fun.”
That’s probably the right outlook for the 23-year-old former first-round pick to have. If he ignores the pressure, it can’t overtake him. But it also doesn’t mean it’s nonexistent.
Barnett isn’t totally back from a torn rotator cuff and subsequent surgery that ended his 2018 season early. He didn’t begin training camp on PUP, but throughout the first week of training camp, he hasn’t been a full participant either. At the start of camp, Barnett said he’s just following the plan set up by the medical staff. Rotator cuff injuries can take a long time to heal, but he said he thinks being back for Week 1 is realistic.
If he is back on the field, the question then becomes: just what will the Eagles have when he is back? Because Barnett was the 14th overall pick in 2017 and could be an ascending talent. We’ve seen flashes, even last year, when he began the season as a starter.
Through four games before the injury in 2018, Barnett was the Eagles’ best defensive end (this was when Brandon Graham was hampered by a lingering ankle injury and before Michael Bennett found his groove). He had 2½ sacks in those first four games, putting him on pace for a double-digit sack season. But then he hurt his shoulder. After missing a week, he played through the injury for two games, but wasn’t nearly as effective and, eventually, made the tough decision to shut himself down for the year.
“Tough at the time,” Barnett said. “But I hope to be like a lot of these vets in here like [Jason Kelce] or [Fletcher Cox] or [Jason Peters]. I hope to play a long time. I had to make a decision that was probably the best thing.”
Despite the injury, Barnett thinks he’s improved his overall strength this offseason.
The biggest reason the Eagles are counting on Barnett this year is because of a lack of depth at defensive end. In 2018, the Eagles began the season with the same starters (Graham and Barnett), but had Long and Bennett as their top rotational players. While the Eagles should be deeper at DT with a healthy Tim Jernigan and the pickup of Malik Jackson, their depth is noticeably weaker at defensive end. They brought back Vinny Curry and will then rely on second-year pro Josh Sweat, who played just 68 snaps as a rookie.
All that makes Barnett’s role in this defense so important, whether he allows himself to realize it or not.
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