The Eagles’ 21-year-old defensive end could be a game changer.
By Dave Spadaro
As the sports fans of the region celebrate the galaxy of young stars among the professional landscape — Carson Wentz of the Eagles, Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons and Markelle Fultz of the 76ers and the Flyers’ recent first-round draft pick, Nolan Patrick — keep another name, although less heralded, in mind.
Eagles defensive end Derek Barnett.
His position is not necessarily as glamorous — defensive ends live a dirty life at the line of scrimmage, with only the celebratory quarterback-sack dance as the public display of reward for a job well done.
But a great defensive end has street cred, and the Eagles think the just-turned 21-year-old, the 14th overall pick in April’s NFL draft, is going to be a difference-making addition.
“He’s special in many ways,” defensive line coach Chris Wilson said. “There are qualities to his game, and his approach to the game, that are very unique for a young man new to this league. He has things you can’t teach, and with the things you can teach, he’s extremely accepting of the coaching. Fast learner. Wants to get better every day. That’s the kind of player you want to work with.”
Barnett’s role for 2017 is, at such an early juncture, undefined. He lined up as a reserve in the team’s spring drills and the mandatory minicamp. The Eagles aren’t going to force anything with Barnett, but they also have an open mind and understand just how talented he is and how productive he was at the University of Tennessee, where he broke the legendary Reggie White’s quarterback sack records.
When the Eagles speak of Barnett’s skill set, they talk about his “bend” — which is the natural way Barnett turns the corner as he rushes the quarterback and makes himself so pliable, Gumby-like, if you will — and his quickness at the snap of the football, as well as his relentless pursuit of excellence.
“Great first step, challenges offensive tackles on the edge every time he rushes,” Eagles vice president of player personnel Joe Douglas said of Barnett. ”He’s a guy who can get under pads and then bend the corner. He plays with an attitude and gives great effort on every snap of the football.”
The sports scene in this great city has been a frustrating one for many seasons — the Eagles have not been in the playoffs since 2013 and have not won a postseason game since 2008, for example — but the outlook for the immediate future is on the uptick. Barnett, though he’s in the shadows a bit, is a reason for the encouraging feelings.
If Barnett can come in and play to the level the Eagles think he can play, right away, then the Jim Schwartz defense has a fearsome front that will make everyone better. Combine that with an offense that appears to be tremendously improved and, well, could a playoff appearance be in the offing for the season ahead?
Suddenly in Philadelphia, the galaxy of young sports stars is filling up, just in time to save a generation of winning-starved fans get their collective appetite back. Barnett isn’t the biggest name among the bunch, but his presence is very much needed for the Eagles right away. ••