If this season is it for Anthony Barr...

The Vikings' Pro Bowl linebacker talked like he would be playing his final season in Minnesota

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By Matthew Coller

A few weeks ago I stumbled across a game from the mid-1990s on YouTube involving the Pittsburgh Steelers and something caught my ear. Throughout the game the Monday Night Football booth — I believe Frank and Al and Dan — spent a great deal of the game obsessing over linebacker Levon Kirkland. If you remember Kirkland, you know why the broadcast would have celebrated every tackle. He was the middle linebacker for many terrific Steelers defenses under Bill Cowher and he was a physical marvel. Kirkland played a sideline-to-sideline position at 6-foot-1, 270 pounds. It was crazy to watch.

Without even thinking about how freaking long ago Kirkland was in the league (he’s currently 52 years old), I opened up Pro Football Focus and typed in his name because I had a suspicion that he might have been overrated. Of course, PFF’s data doesn’t come anywhere close to involving Kirkland, so I went to his Pro-Football Reference page. Kirkland had a handful of sacks each year but nothing to write home about (career high 5.0 sacks) and maybe more interceptions than you expect from a 270-pound dude. He had a couple of Pro Bowl appearances. Football Reference’s “Approximate Value” stat has him as a pretty solid player but well below the Ray Lewises and Brian Urlachers of the world. All of this was pretty unsatisfying in trying to get my answer.

It came to my mind: Is there any way for me to know exactly how good Levon Kirkland was? Considering the amount of data we have now, it felt oddly frustrating to be without enough information to have anything definitive. And I’m sure as heck not taking Dierdorf’s word for it. I’m not trusting the Pro Bowl voters either. Or tackle numbers. All I know is that this big fella was a really important player to Cowher because he played nearly every defensive snap from 1992 to 2000.

All of this brought me back to the Minnesota Vikings. Kirkland reminded me a lot of Anthony Barr.

I wondered if Barr played in the 1990s, would the Monday Night Football broadcast would have fawned over him? Would have looked at him as less of a debate topic and more of a great pillar of Mike Zimmer’s defenses? If rather than shrugging our shoulders at some of his Pro Bowl selections, we would have used those as proof of his excellence? If we would have argued that the Football Men believe he’s great so those are the facts and that’s that.

Instead, throughout Barr’s career there’s been a persistent push and pull of Zimmer attempting to explain Barr’s value to the world and the world wondering if that’s really the case because we have a decent amount of information to suggest he’s just…pretty good.

In 2019, PFF ranked him 30th of 57 every-down linebackers (not including edge-rushing 3-4 outside linebackers). In 2018, 24th. In 2017, 15th. In 2016, 54th. In 2015 he was second. So aside from the wild swing from 2015 to 2016, he’s been consistently in the pretty good range.

But Zimmer has always argued that he’s absolutely necessary to the defense and the team signed him to a contract in 2019 that was among the elites of the position.

And Zimmer’s breakdowns of the value of things PFF doesn’t grade are always very specific. They aren’t vague platitudes about gritty linebackers. I asked him last week about what was missing with Barr out for the majority of 2020 and he gave a thoughtful answer.

“I think he was missed everywhere,” Zimmer said. “He missed 14 ½ games or something like that. He’s tremendously smart. We always have a lot of packages for him, things that he can do differently where a lot of players can’t do that. But not only that, he’s a terrific leader and guys respect him in the locker room. The coaches respect him in the way he goes about his business. He’s a guy that can communicate to me in kind of where things are or if I need to adjust things or change things up a little bit as well. He’s a really important part of our football team.”

Still with locker room value, respect, communication and such — we’re left wondering if these things are worth keeping him on a deal that carried the third highest cap hit in 2020.

There’s actually a lot to like on his PFF stat sheet, by the way. His career pressure rate is very good for the position and his career coverage numbers aren’t problematic for a linebacker who is asked to take on difficult assignments. If you take the average grades for his tackling, run defense, coverage and pass rush, they all come out to be…pretty good.

One factor is that PFF only grades the plays in which a player is involved, not the ones that he isn’t involved. That means that tackles for loss, sacks, interceptions, forced fumbles and pass breakups are going to get weighted heavily into a yearly grade. Barr’s collection of those things peaked in 2015. He had his career high in pressures, sacks and forced fumbles that year. That set a standard of expectation.

From that perspective, a single season is a small sample. We see baseball hitters fluctuate batting averages over 162 games, imagine how much a linebacker’s splash plays can go up and down over 16 contests. But that first impression dies hard.

This is the part where we say: “All of that shows he’s been a valuable contributor but it’s hard to justify the deal he signed in 2019 if he doesn’t make the splash plays like 2015.”

It feels unfortunate that we will someday put that sentiment on the gravestone of Anthony Barr’s time in Minnesota. Maybe in 1995 we wouldn’t have known the complete structure of his deal or understood cap management enough to question it. Frank and Al and Dan would have talked about the contract as proof that he was one of the league’s best. They wouldn’t have said, “Well look he’s allowed a 107.5 QB rating into his coverage and coverage is most valuable so…”

For a minute there watching Kirkland track down Fred Taylor, I thought: As much as we gain through statistical analysis, sometimes we lose something by feeling like we definitely know the answers.

Anyway, about this year. While we talk about make-or-break seasons for different Vikings players/coaches/management, Barr’s situation feels already broken. He re-worked his contract to reduce his cap hit to just over $6 million in order to stay in Minnesota but he’ll hit free agency after this season. At OTAs he talked for the first time since the beginning of the 2020 season and there was a very last-hurrah feeling to his comments.

“I kind of didn't want to go out like that – I didn’t want my last game being the one in which I got hurt and then missing an entire year,” Barr said when asked why he re-worked his contract. “I didn't want that to be my last memory as a Minnesota Viking, so that played a big factor in returning and taking the pay-cut to be back with this organization.”

Barr continued…

“I was able to reflect and realize I’m very blessed and still very fortunate to be in this situation that I am and to take advantage of the time because it is precious and it is fleeting. I’m much more appreciative, I guess, of my situation.”

There’s two things that come to mind here: First is that Barr has very much gone out of his way to remain a Viking. Years ago this would have been something fans would rave over rather than breaking down how they could have used his cap space. The other thing is: This year opens up the door to change the words on the gravestone of his Vikings career.

Maybe Barr won’t ever repeat his 2015 string of splash plays but if he’s central to a massive turnaround by the Vikings’ defense, it will point to how much he was indeed missed last year. As much as Eric Wilson admirably filled the void, the down-to-down effort and impact on the defense was not the same as when Barr is playing. So he’ll have the chance to have the final say on whether bringing him back in 2019 was a good move and whether Zimmer’s persistent table-standing for him is justified.

If he leads a good defense and helps bring the defense back to form, you’ll hear Al and Collinsworth obsessing over the importance of his return. He’ll probably make the Pro Bowl. Zimmer will talk about his intangibles. His PFF grade will probably be…pretty good.

And if this is it for Barr, it might actually be OK to occasionally let your guard down and not worry too much about his contract and appreciate that players like Kirkland and Barr often bring more than meets the grade.

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