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How Anthony Barr will fit into the Cowboys defense in 2022

The Cowboys added a piece, but just how much of a piece?

Pittsburgh Steelers v Minnesota Vikings Photo by Cooper Neill/Getty Images

After occasional whispers of mutual interest persisted throughout most of the offseason, the Cowboys signed veteran linebacker Anthony Barr to a one-year deal worth up to $3 million on Wednesday. The signing came just a few short hours after the Cowboys concluded their mock game (read: walkthrough) for the daily portion of training camp.

Barr-to-the-Cowboys had been going in and out for a while now, It’s understandable to get excited about the addition. Barr was a highly productive fixture of Mike Zimmer’s defenses in Minnesota for the past eight years, which included four consecutive Pro Bowl appearances from 2015 to 2018.

Allow me to be the killer of joy for a moment, because Barr is no longer that type of player. While Barr certainly wouldn’t be the first player to turn back the clocks after getting a change of scenery, it does seem unlikely that Barr will become an impact player for the Cowboys, and fan expectations should be tempered as such.

Barr’s streak of Pro Bowls came to an end in the 2019 season, a year that he nearly didn’t play with the Vikings. That’s because Barr had agreed in principle to a massive deal with the Jets in free agency, where Barr would be converted to an edge rusher after being used as an off-ball linebacker who excelled on blitzes in Minnesota. Barr had a change of heart and returned to the Vikings, but he couldn’t keep up with the high level of play he had become accustomed to.

The next year, Barr missed all but two games after tearing his pectoral muscle in the second game of the season. That led to a contract restructure that would allow him to become a free agent after the 2021 season. It took some time for Barr to return to the field in 2021, but he made his season debut in Week 5 and played a total of 11 games. Still, Minnesota’s defense had a very mediocre season, which led to Zimmer’s firing and Barr’s journey onto the open market.

Barr’s injury in 2020 played a huge part in it, but his profile was of a player who was on the decline before then. He was still playing productive football in both 2019 and 2021, recording extremely low missed tackle rates each season, but Barr was definitely not the dominant force he had been earlier in his career.

Part of this was due to the further evolution of the NFL towards more passing. Coverage was an area of Barr’s game that always lagged behind his other skills, and it became more and more evident as opposing offenses started airing it out more. In both 2019 and 2021, Barr was targeted at least 48 times and allowed completions on at least 72% of those passes.

For comparison, Micah Parsons (a player with a similar profile coming out of college) was targeted just ten less times than Barr last year but allowed completions on just 61.1% of those passes. In fact, no Cowboys linebacker allowed as high a completion rate (79.2%) as Barr did in 2021; the only one that came close was Keanu Neal (78.9%) and he’s no longer with the team.

Barr’s ability as a blitzer and downhill tackler has always been his calling card, and that’s become more true as his body has aged over the years. But in Dallas, Parsons is already filling that role on a level Barr never even sniffed at any point in his Vikings tenure. While Barr could see the field at linebacker on the occasions that Parsons moves down to the line of scrimmage, both Mike McCarthy and Dan Quinn have emphasized that they’re not looking to permanently move Parsons to the defensive line:

That creates a bit of a conundrum when trying to envision just how Barr fits in this defense. Obviously, he brings a lot of experience and leadership, having been a team captain in Minnesota. But in terms of actually seeing the field, it gets complicated.

Besides Parsons, Dallas likes Jabril Cox, as Cox’s skills in coverage nicely complement Parsons’ more downhill play style, so it would seem redundant to play Barr next to Parsons with any regularity. Then there’s Leighton Vander Esch, a veteran in his own right. Vander Esch finished the 2021 season strong, especially in coverage, which played a part in the Cowboys re-signing him to a one-year deal. The expectation thus far has been that Vander Esch would play next to Parsons on run downs, with Cox coming in on obvious passing downs. And indications from training camp thus far have been overwhelmingly positive for the former 2018 first-round pick:

All in all, Barr’s signing closely resembles Malik Hooker’s signing a year ago. When free agency first opened up last year, Dallas brought in Hooker, as well as Damontae Kazee and Jayron Kearse, for workouts. They signed the latter two, but made no move on Hooker until shortly after training camp had begun. The result was a slow start for Hooker, largely playing behind Kearse and Kazee on the depth chart. He saw his playing time increase later in the year, but only as Kazee’s play declined.

The timing of Barr’s signing suggests a similar approach. If Barr was really capable of coming in and becoming an impact player right off the bat, he wouldn’t still be available in August and he wouldn’t have signed for so little money. It’s entirely likely that Barr only sees the field in spurts to start the year, with a rotation of Cox and Vander Esch remaining the primary option next to Parsons.

That doesn’t preclude Barr from getting more run if he really impresses, or if either Vander Esch or Cox aren’t ready to go. But it seems likely that the Cowboys view Barr as insurance right now rather than as an impact piece. So any expectations that the Cowboys are getting prime Anthony Barr are likely an unfair standard to hold the team’s newest addition to, no matter how badly we may want that to be the case.

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