First-round draft picks are largely treated like gold in the NFL and are on “star” tracks from the moment they are selected. The Eagles have had their share of first-rounders elevate into premier players – Carson Wentz at quarterback, Fletcher Cox at defensive tackle, and Lane Johnson at right tackle among others. As he enters Year 3, 2017 No. 1 draft pick Derek Barnett hopes to take the step into “elite” status at defensive end.
Another key player coming off an injury that ended his 2018 campaign, Barnett plays a position that takes some time to master. A record-setting sack artist at the University of Tennessee, Barnett was the 14th player selected in that Philadelphia-based 2017 NFL Draft, and he instantly showed he belonged in the league. Using great quickness, bend on the edges, and mature technique, Barnett played 41 percent of the defensive snaps as a rookie, recorded 5.5 quarterback sacks, and added 32 quarterback hits/pressures. He stepped up in the postseason with fine play, including a strip-sack of Minnesota quarterback Case Keenum in the blowout NFC Championship Game. And, of course, he was in the right place at the right time in the Super Bowl LII win over New England, recovering the Tom Brady fumble forced by Brandon Graham that led to a Jake Elliott field goal and an eight-point lead late in the fourth quarter.
As far as rookie seasons go, Barnett’s was right on par with a young defensive end on the way up, up, up.
Little did anyone know that Barnett played with some injuries late in that season, serious enough that he required sports hernia surgery after the Super Bowl victory. Barnett recovered in time for the start of 2018 play and advanced his game as a starting end. Six games in, after recording 2.5 quarterback sacks and 16 total tackles, though, Barnett suffered a shoulder injury that required surgery and he was done for the year.
It's been a long period of rehabilitation for Barnett, then. So much work. Very little time off.
The reward is about to come, though. Barnett has to be as eager as anyone on the roster to get things rolling in the not-far-away 2019 Eagles Training Camp.
"I'd say every time he's on the field, he's rewarding our investment in him," Howie Roseman said. "We have a lot of confidence in him as a player and he's a huge part of our football team. He's shown that this isn't a guy that's going into his third year and we haven't seen what he's done.
“We've seen what he's done in big games. We saw what he was doing last year before he got hurt. We expect him to come in and be a huge part of our team.”
Barnett is a quiet young man who spends limited time talking to the media. His focus is on full recovery and keeping it that way. Year 3 is a big one for Barnett, who is being counted on to take that crucial next step. The Eagles reconfigured their defensive end picture with the trade of Michael Bennett to New England and the retirement of Chris Long, so it’s especially important that Barnett is on the field this season. He and Brandon Graham are the leading contenders to get the most reps and to do that, you have to be healthy and you have to be productive. A first-round pick coming into his own as a standout, a 16-game standout, is the perfect tonic for the Eagles’ defensive line picture.
So, in these final weeks before camp opens, the progress made by Barnett is something to watch. He’s one of so many Eagles coming back from injury – safety Rodney McLeod, offensive guard Brandon Brooks, cornerbacks Ronald Darby and Jalen Mills among them – and Barnett is among the most crucial to get all the way back, and then some. First-round draft picks have “star” pedigrees. And the Eagles have gained from most of the first-rounders they’ve taken in this decade – beginning with Graham in 2010. Barnett is the next one to make that move into the upper echelon. He’s poised, with a lot of hard work in the athletic training room and in the weight room, to take that step.