Vikings: Projecting Anthony Barr's role

MINNEAPOLIS -- We talked a bit last week about the different dynamic UCLA linebacker Anthony Barr would bring to the Minnesota Vikings' defense, providing a bigger pass-rush presence than they have had at linebacker in some time. But then the Vikings traded up to take Teddy Bridgewater, the quarterback stole the headlines and we haven't discussed Barr much since.

I wanted to return to that this morning, with a more detailed discussion about how the Vikings might employ the rookie linebacker. Coach Mike Zimmer was coy about the subject after the Vikings drafted Barr last Thursday night -- "I don’t want to tell Green Bay, Chicago and Detroit. I want to let them try and figure that out at some point," he said -- but there are some precedents from Zimmer's past defenses about where Barr might fit.

The most recent comparison is James Harrison, the former Pittsburgh Steelers linebacker whom the Cincinnati Bengals signed to play in Zimmer's 4-3 defense a year ago. Harrison wound up doing many of the same things he did as a pass-rushing linebacker in the Steelers' 3-4 defense, and didn't see many differences in his role in the two defenses. "I'm playing 'Sam' (strongside linebacker), so I'm basically doing the same thing I do in a 3-4 defense," he told the Cincinnati Enquirer last April. "It's just that I'll switch where I'm lining up," he said. "I'll be ... stacked behind a tackle or guard or whatever it may be. And I'll do my job from there."

Harrison had a disappointing season at age 35, but he was more active as a pass-rusher in the Bengals' defense than any other linebacker -- or, for that matter, anyone the Vikings have had in years. According to Pro Football Focus, he rushed the passer on 36.4 percent of his snaps, playing run defense on 41.5 percent of them and dropping into coverage 22 percent of the time. No Vikings linebacker rushed the passer on more than 11 percent of his snaps last season in the team's old Cover-2 defense.

Zimmer also said Denver's Von Miller is a good comparison for what the Vikings would like to do with Barr; Miller rushed 46 percent of the time in the Broncos' defense last season, playing the run 40 percent of the time and dropping into coverage 13 percent of the time, according to Pro Football Focus.

"Typically, our 'Sam' linebacker blitzes a lot more than our 'Will' linebacker," Zimmer said last Thursday. "We’re thinking of ways to continually try and pressure the quarterback as many times as we can, and the position he plays is a pressure position, that’s why we felt good about him."

Barr will have to adapt to the nuances of the linebacker position in Zimmer's defense after primarily rushing the passer as a 3-4 outside linebacker at UCLA, but Zimmer didn't seem concerned with him getting a feel for a broader role. "The biggest part for me, would be that he has been in the outside linebacker rushing a large majority of the time, or he would be a cover down linebacker some, you know he goes out in space," Zimmer said. "Sometimes he lines up over the guards, but he is right on top of the guards. He will be backed up a little bit in some of our base defensive packages, so that won’t be that hard for him to learn the reads from that position opposed to outside."

The Vikings could move Barr around somewhat in sub packages, and they will undoubtedly fit their scheme to what Barr can do, but Harrison's and Miller's roles last season seem like a decent baseline for what Barr could do in Minnesota. It's also easy to see why Zimmer pushed so hard for Barr; there was no one on the Vikings' roster who was an obvious fit for the strongside spot in Zimmer's defense, whereas Barr seems like a natural fit for the role.

"The guy has played two years on defense. He’s like a fawn," Zimmer said. "He’s just learning some of these things. It’s not that he is so raw that he is not a good football player, because he is a really good football player. I don’t want anybody to think that because he is inexperienced that he is not a good football player. He will be good. I’m excited about the chance to take him and mold him into what I really envision him to be, which I think will be good."