EAGAN, Minn. — There were plenty of smiles around Twin Cities Orthopedics Performance Center on Thursday afternoon as Anthony Barr and Shamar Stephen came home.
Barr, a four-time Pro Bowl linebacker, endured an emotional few days of free agency before deciding to stay with the team that drafted him.
Stephen was drafted by Minnesota in 2014 and spent four years in Purple but played for Seattle in 2018. He, too, decided to come back and play for the Vikings after a year away.
The decisions by each player put Vikings Head Coach Mike Zimmer in a good mood.
“Great people, good players who want to learn and get better, be great people in the locker room and help each other get better,” Zimmer said. “It’s really a great day for me to get these two guys back, they’ll always be Vikings and they’ll always be Zim’ guys.”
But now that it’s known that Barr and Stephen will suit up for Zimmer’s defense in 2019, what will their roles be going forward?
We’ll start with Barr, who has done a bit of everything in Zimmer’s system since he was the ninth overall pick in the 2014 NFL Draft.
Zimmer on Thursday noted how Barr’s versatility in being able to stop the run, rush the passer and cover tight ends or running backs in space helps lead the Vikings defense to overall success.
“I know a lot of laymen don’t understand this, but Anthony is a guy that every team that we play game plans for,” Zimmer said. “There’s not one team – there might have been one team last year that didn’t, and we got 10 sacks. They all game plan for him.
“A lot of that is him sacrificing himself for being able to have other guys free on rushes and blitzes and things like that. That’s why he’s such an unselfish guy,” Zimmer added. “We understand that no team that we play is ever going to say, ‘We’re not going to worry about Anthony Barr.’ That’s part of it, and sometimes we do it anyway. That’s just part of it. We’re always going to try and scheme the best way to win on that particular Sunday.”
Added Vikings General Manager Rick Spielman: “When you talk to different coaches at the combine, one thing that was a common theme was that when Anthony Barr is on the field, you have to account for him. You don’t know if he’s coming to blitz, where he’s coming to blitz from, is Harrison Smith coming off the edge, but when teams actually are telling us that, ‘We have to account for that player on Sunday,’ you know he’s a pretty good player.”
Barr has 13.5 sacks in five seasons with the Vikings, with his season-best of 4.0 sacks coming as a rookie in 2014. The linebacker had a trio of sacks in 2018, all of which came in the final quarter of the season.
On Thursday, Barr noted that “I knew what my role is here and I expect it to get even bigger now. I wouldn’t want it any other way.”
Barr has shown pass-rushing prowess in the past — he had 23.5 sacks in his final two seasons at UCLA — and he could see his role evolve into getting after the quarterback more in 2019 and beyond.
Barr said he’d be happy with any job going forward, whether it’s similar to what he’s done in the past or one that comes with a few more pressures.
“I think the coaches have always done a great job playing to my strengths, and I think they’ll continue to do that,” Barr said. “Whatever I’m asked to do, I’ll try to do to the best of my ability. I’ll try to make the players around me better.
“I think I’ve been able to do that to a certain extent since I’ve been here. I think that’s how you measure the leaders. ‘Can you make everybody else better and can you get everybody on the same page doing the same thing?’ ” Barr added. “To do that with 11 guys on defense for 70 plays a game is not easy, but it’s a role I’ve accepted and it’s a role I enjoy and a role I’m looking forward to continuing.”
Stephen, meanwhile, will be a welcome presence in the middle of Minnesota’s defensive line.
Spielman said Thursday, once Minnesota learned Sheldon Richardson was leaving in free agency, then “Shamar became a priority because he knows our system, we know what type of player he is, know what type of person he is and we can plug-and-play him right away.”
With Richardson gone, Stephen could slot into the other defensive tackle starting spot as the 3-technique. Stephen also has the ability to play nose tackle, giving Linval Joseph a break and allowing a player such as Jaleel Johnson or Jalyn Holmes to play at the 3-technique spot.
“I was playing more nose [in Seattle], played a little bit at 3, but mostly nose,” Stephen said. “Here, I’m up to whatever the coaches want me to play, 3, nose – no matter it is I’m here to work and be able to help them in run, pass – whatever they want me to do.”
Wherever Stephen lines up, he’ll be counted upon to help a Vikings defense that ranked 15th in the league by allowing 113.4 rushing yards per game. (That is the highest total since 2014, Zimmer’s first season as head coach).
Stephen played a big role in 2017 when Minnesota ranked second against the run by allowing just 83.6 rushing yards per game.
“Well, one of the things I felt like all along this year that if going into next season we have maybe a little bit more size in the middle, that would help the linebackers and some of the secondary guys, help solidify some of the running game,” Zimmer said. “We’re talking about doing some different things defensively this year, and being able to have a guy with Shamar’s versatility along with Linval [Joseph] inside, I think it will help us change some of the packages that we run.”
Zimmer quipped that the Vikings called Stephen “Big Fundamental” in his previous stint in Minnesota because of his workmanlike attitude that Zimmer and his coaching staff admire.
“The way he is, that’s the way he goes about his job. He’s quiet, he works real hard,” Zimmer said. “You don’t really notice him, he just plays really, really good every time he goes out there.”
Vikings LB Anthony Barr and DT Shamar Stephen met with the media after signing their new contracts with the team.
The Vikings defense ranked fourth in yards allowed per game and ninth in points allowed per game in 2018 while also finishing first in third-down percentage for the second straight season.
With Barr and Stephen both back in the fold with the ability to be used in multiple roles, Minnesota’s defense will look to sustain its recent level of success going forward.