The narrative is that the NFL Combine doesn’t matter. Yet, it’s covered extensively and treated like the holy grail of player evaluation.
For example, Washington wide receiver John Ross became a folk hero after his record-breaking 40-yard dash. But despite being football’s version of roadrunner, there are legitimate concerns about his ability to translate to the next level.
But those issues get overshadowed by combine shine. It completely ignores the pristinely accurate mantra that “tape don’t lie.”
For Derek Barnett, the combine wasn’t his finest hour. Instead, he was busy having his finest hour every Saturday during his three-year career at Tennessee.
Barnett is the perfect example of a player who shouldn’t be judged on his combine performance. It shouldn’t be entirely ignored because athletic traits do matter, especially when the gap between athleticism in the NFL and athleticism in college is wider than people recognize. Barnett isn’t an elite athlete, but he plays harder, faster and stronger when he puts on pads.
Ask every quarterback and offensive coordinator Tennessee has squared off against since 2014. And if you can’t do that because you don’t have media access, then watch the tape. And if you can’t watch the tape because you’re blind, how are you reading this column?
The tape is where Barnett earned his first-round grade. On it, you’ll see why Barnett is so acclaimed. You’ll see his relentless motor, his ability to bend around the edge and a knack for versatility.
He can fit in a 4-3 or 3-4 scheme. If he’s not pressuring the passer, he’s stuffing the run. He even covered a wide receiver stride-for-stride at one point.
But make no mistake about it, Barnett is a pure pass rusher. He isn’t as refined as Myles Garrett, nor is he as athletic, but Barnett’s hyper-aggressive mentality makes up for his lack of size, speed and multiple pass rush moves (which he will develop in the NFL).
He’s a subdued interview, as he normally talks about improving his craft, but on the field, Barnett is a monster.
Those two plays exemplify the type of player Barnett is. He’s not only relentless and productive, but he shows up in the biggest moments.
He took over the second half against Florida. His strip sack of Jacob Eason in the end zone was recovered for a touchdown, giving Tennessee the lead. His strip sack against Alabama led to the Vols’ lone touchdown of the game. Oh, then there’s the bowl performance against Nebraska, where Barnett lived in the backfield and took residence in every future Cornhusker’s nightmare.
But the true beauty of Barnett’s performance against Nebraska came with the circumstances. He was tied with the immortal Reggie White for most career sacks at Tennessee. Throughout the game, he disregarded everything in his path, hellbent on blowing up every play. He had opportunity after opportunity, but couldn’t get that elusive sack. Every slight miss drew a distressed reaction from the crowd, which was drenched in orange and white.
Frustration didn’t ensue for Barnett. Instead, it was determination. A rage to etch his name in Tennessee’s all-time stone.
He got the sack and was honored, but because Barnett is obsessed with winning, you got the sense he cared more that the sack helped his team win rather than breaking a record.
But if Barnett is chasing sack records, I feel any NFL team would embrace that attitude with open arms.
Come April 27, a team will give Barnett that chance. And after he records at least 100 sacks and is named to multiple pro bowls, he’ll have his performance on tape to thank for that.