EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. — Players picked in the top 10 of the NFL Draft are often expected to make immediate impacts for their teams, but the ultimate desire is they will become long-term forces and leave lasting legacies.
Vikings linebacker Anthony Barr's open to his rookie season has helped Minnesota's defense improve from a year ago, and his solid start has coaches and teammates excited about the future.
Vikings Head Coach Mike Zimmer said Barr has potential to be one of the "better, better linebackers in this league." Defensive coordinator George Edwards said Barr is "as good a rookie" as he's coached at linebacker, and teammate Harrison Smith called him "your ideal rookie."
Barr, however, isn't looking too far ahead. He instead focuses on daily improvement, and each rotation of the earth offers more lessons. The biggest one he's learned so far is, "Try to be great each day; don't look too far ahead."
"Obviously, the goal is to win on Sunday, but you've got to be great on Wednesday to be successful on Sunday," Barr said. "You've got to be great Thursday in order to be successful Sunday, so take it day by day and not try to overlook anything or be overwhelmed, just focus on the moment."
Barr recently delivered a play for the ages in the hearts of Vikings fans. He forced and scooped up a fumble and returned the ball 27 yards for a touchdown on the first play of overtime to give Minnesota a dramatic 19-13 win at Tampa Bay.
"I was basically (man-to-man coverage) on the tight end," Barr said. "He broke out and I was a little late to get there, but I was able to get my hand on the ball and strip it and fortunate enough to pick it up and score. It was just out. I saw the ball out so it was an opportunity, and I had to seize it. Fortunately it worked out."
Bar said he was thinking, "Win, score, let's get out of here," during his fumble return.
Barr's disappointment in having a limited role at running back and the number of times his team lost in his first two seasons at UCLA prompted him to meet with new Bruins Head Coach Jim Mora in 2012 and speak of his desire to switch positions and sides of the ball.
"It wasn't intimidating, a real friendly conversation, casual, 'I want to change positions Coach, what do you think?' And I just ran with it," Barr recalled. "He didn't say no. He was more than willing to work with me, and I was more than willing to work with him, so it was a good point, a good match at the time."
The move caused quite a revolution, with Barr starting the final 27 games of his college career and recording 149 tackles (103 solo), 23.5 sacks, six pass breakups, 41.5 tackles for loss, 10 forced fumbles and four fumble recoveries. He earned All-America designation, rocketed up draft boards, and this May, became the second-highest linebacker drafted in Vikings history when he was tabbed at the ninth overall spot. Hall of Famer Chris Doleman, who later moved to defensive end, was selected fourth in 1985.
Barr recorded 11 tackles (10 solo) and a quarterback hit in his NFL debut, a convincing win at St. Louis. He notched the first sack and pass breakup of his career at New Orleans and scooped up his first two fumble recoveries at Buffalo.
"I think that's what every NFL player, a rookie, a veteran wants to try to make an impact on the team and try to help the team," Barr said. "I put a lot of focus on maturity and the want and will to be great to go out there and do my assignment as correctly as possible and try to make plays to help the team."
Barr's transition from linebacker to defensive end didn't take as long as Doleman's. Zimmer and Edwards have opted to slide him into an edge rushing position in some substitution packages this season.
He's embraced the varying roles that Zimmer and Edwards have created for him, similar to the way he wraps up running backs. Barr, however, considers all aspects of his game as "works in progress."
"I think it's all around," Barr said. "I think, from stopping the run, to dropping back into coverage, to rushing and tackling. There's something to always be working on."
Zimmer, who is in his first year after several seasons of building top-tier defenses, said he is pleased with Barr's progression and excited about the potential.
"He's progressing, I think, as we expected him to," Zimmer said. "He's doing well. He's a good kid, he's still learning so much about the position that he's playing right now and I like him because he's not only a good athlete – he's physical and fast and powerful – but he's also very conscientious and wants to be very good at his job.
"I think he'll continue to progress more comfortably the more he sees in the system, and we'll continue to find more things for him to do," Zimmer continued. "I think that at some point in time I expect him to be one of the better, better linebackers in this league. I don't know when that will be but I expect it to be sometime."
Edwards said he's been encouraged by the instincts Barr has shown for a player who is in just his third season as a linebacker.
"I'm really impressed with the production and the things that he's able to accomplish at the position," Edwards said. "He gets the most out of his ability every day, that's what we try to get everybody to do. He comes out and pays attention to the detail. He can pick up things that we are trying to get accomplished. He's a good match in coverage, he's a good pass rusher. From that aspect of it, him paying attention to the details of all of the things we're asking him to do. To wear as many hats as he does as a rookie, from that aspect of it, yeah, I'm pretty impressed with him."
Barr also handled the duties of wearing the communicative device in his helmet when injuries sidelined Vikings veteran linebacker Chad Greenway earlier this season. The device allows one player to receive the call from defensive coaches before each play and relay that to teammates. Barr said the additional leadership responsibility has its benefits.
"It's helpful to me," Barr said. "It allows me to hear the call personally, and that resonates in my head and I'm going to have my assignment and relay the message out to my teammates. It's really not overwhelming. You just focus on the task."
The way a new player fits in the locker room is also an important aspect. Barr's locker is next to Smith's at the Vikings Winter Park headquarters.
Smith, a first-round pick in 2012 who also made an immediate impact at safety by recording 129 tackles, three interceptions and 13 pass breakups in starting 16 games as a rookie, said he expected Barr to be accompanied by hype, but that hasn't happened at all.
"He's kind of your ideal rookie. He didn't come in with an attitude or an entitled mentality," Smith said. "He's a very humble guy, you know, comes to work and wants to be a guy that does things right, so he's the ideal rookie, plays hard, plays with talent. Obviously, he's doing big things for a rookie."
Smith said Barr was "kind of quiet" when he came in, and defensive teammates have kidded him a little about playing offense in college, but the level of play Barr has shown is no joke.
"I mean he looks like he's been playing linebacker forever. He's very smart, picks up things fast. You can tell he's building more and more confidence each week," Smith said. "Everybody likes him. He's good in the locker room, he's going to be one of those guys that you hear about for a long time on the field, and then what his presence to the team means."