MINNEAPOLIS -- The clock had been ticking on Anthony Barr’s time in Minnesota after last offseason came and went without the linebacker receiving a contract extension. Now that the franchise tag window has passed, both sides are set to go in separate directions with Barr headed toward free agency.
The Vikings' decision to let their former first-round pick hit the open market is among the least surprising news ahead of the new league year. Minnesota’s financial situation is tenuous. According to ESPN’s Roster Management System, the Vikings currently sit with $5,263,899 in cap space. The fact there just isn’t enough money to fork up for the franchise tag (an estimated $15.8 million for outside linebackers) and later come to an agreement on a long-term deal wasn’t lost on Minnesota’s decision-makers.
“Anthony was my number one pick as a head coach, right?” coach Mike Zimmer said at the NFL combine. “I love him as far as the things he does for the organization, the football team. It’s just really going to depend on where the numbers go. ... But the way it is with the cap, we have to budget where we’re going. So if it goes to, if Barr gets paid $18 million, it probably ain’t going to happen, you know?”
Depending upon where he lands in free agency and what his next role becomes, Barr’s market could command somewhere in the $12 million to $15 million range. His value in a 4-3 scheme as an outside linebacker might not be as high as it would be should he move back into a role where he primarily plays on the edge and rushes the passer, similar to the type of responsibilities he carried during his career at UCLA.
What we know is this: The Vikings need to find a replacement for one of their defensive staples. Despite an up-and-down season in 2018 hindered by a hamstring injury, Barr is a very good off-ball linebacker and situational edge rusher. He led all linebackers in pass-rushing productivity, according to Pro Football Focus, generating 23 pressures on 94 pass-rush snaps last season. He wrestled at times to emulate the 2015 version of himself where he rushed quarterbacks like a defensive end while covering the back end like a safety, and his coverage skills were often critiqued, but Barr played a critical role over five seasons in one of the NFL’s top defenses. During his time with the Vikings, Barr notched 13.5 sacks and 31 QB hits, forced seven fumbles and had an interception. His production is one thing, but the impact he had on this defense goes beyond tangible things like stats.
"He has a really good grasp on what we’re doing defensively," Zimmer said in December. "He has a good grasp on what the offense is doing. He can communicate to the defensive line and the other linebackers and I think that helps a lot to be able to do the things we are trying to do."
Barr wasn’t necessarily a "scheme fit" when he was drafted in 2014, but he became what the Vikings needed him to be in Zimmer’s defense. Finding a player whose value can match the former first-round pick’s could come from a number of different places.
Is that player already on the roster? He could be. The Vikings like what they have in Eric Wilson, who filled in for Barr on several occasions in 2018 and performed well. The way linebackers are used in a 4-3 scheme has changed over time. With the amount of snaps the Vikings play in their nickel defense with two linebackers, Minnesota may believe it can fill the void by using Wilson in a similar manner as an off-ball strongside linebacker in a rotational role. That might be its easiest option for right now before drafting another LB.
If Minnesota was to go after Devin Bush or Devin White in April, that would likely require high draft capital and a first-round pick. But sifting through this group of linebackers might yield the best option to find the next Anthony Barr elsewhere and could come at the cost of a second- to fourth-round pick. Could that be someone like FSU's Brian Burns, who has similar measureables to Barr's 6-foot-5, 255-pound frame? Possibly. But then again with the role of an OLB in this defense, going after a certain prototype (the OLB/DE hybrid) might not be necessary.
Beyond the draft, the Vikings could look to the free agent market. It's bleak, sure, but there's value among potential fits. Players such as Jake Ryan and K.J. Wright, who are coming off injury, have proven their worth and ability in the NFL but could come at a more cost-effective price. There's more talent at the top of the market while the rest of what's available could prove to be reliable depth options. The latter of which isn't going to top all of what Barr did in Minnesota, but among a rotation of linebackers (as mentioned previously with Wilson), it's one way to fill the void.