Teddy Bridgewater was named the Vikings' starting quarterback in Week 4, and Minnesota must put its full support behind him. But he’s been inconsistent.
Bridgewater did enough to keep Minnesota in the game Sunday against Tampa Bay, but it was the Vikings' other first-round pick, linebacker Anthony Barr, who led the team to victory. Between his pass rush, pass coverage and natural athleticism, the once-thought "project" defender is already paying huge dividends.
Expected success as a pass rusher
Coming out of UCLA, Barr's most translatable skill was his ability to rush the passer. With 41.5 tackles for loss and 23.5 sacks (despite switching from offense to defense before his junior year), Barr was viewed as a high-upside edge rusher with the athleticism to eventually do more.
However, for a team hoping to maintain pass-rush success despite the loss of Jared Allen, the Vikings asked Barr to contribute sooner rather than later. He's been moved around the formation and from different initial spots in the front seven.
Against the Bucs, he took pass-rush snaps both on the line of scrimmage and from a true linebacker spot. In this play, you see Barr rush from the line of scrimmage and attack with great burst around the edge. Meeting the running back in the backfield, Barr adjusts off the initial block, regains balance and accelerates toward the quarterback, forcing an errant throw from Mike Glennon.
Surprising success in pass coverage
Despite technique and timing not being a strength for Barr coming out of college, the Vikings haven't shied away from using Barr in coverage, both zone and man. He's actually developed into one of the linebacking unit's better coverage players.
Barr has been asked to cover all types of receivers. He was targeted three times against Tampa and recovered from his linebacker spot three more times to finish tackles.
Barr's success in coverage is due to utilization of his fluidity in space and natural body control, along with improved read steps and route vision on pass catchers. He's especially successful re-gathering himself and exploding towards the opponent.
In this play you see his positioning, balance and vision of the receiver's route lead to a stop shortly after the catch. The trust in Barr and the rest of the linebackers has allowed the Vikings secondary to be more conscious of big-play threats down the field.
Athleticism, instincts lead to victory
Barr’s ability to stop short-area receptions and keep the running game contained helped lead to a dominating performance from the Vikings. His athleticism and enhanced instincts prevented big plays and stifled the Bucs' offense — especially late in the game. In this play Barr reacts to Mike Glennon’s reads, recognizes the QB taking off and shows tremendous burst to ensure Glennon picks up nothing.
The Vikings drafted Barr because of his potential to be the best defender in the 2014 class. Despite his status as a top-10 selection, Minnesota likely expected to wait two or three years before seeing return on investment.
But after eight weeks, Barr is way ahead of schedule. Already entrenched as one of the team’s best back-seven players, Barr has become a difference between Minnesota winning and losing games. He beat Tampa with his pass rushing, coverage ability and instincts (and the game-winning play), and the Vikings should remain excited that he, along with Bridgewater, will lead them to many wins in the coming years.
Eric Galko is the owner and director of scouting at Optimum Scouting and OptimumScouting.com, as well as a Sporting News contributor. Follow him on Twitter: @OptimumScouting