While linebacker Anthony Barr will be the third-highest-paid player on the Vikings roster this season at $12.3 million — trailing Kirk Cousins at $22.5 million and Xavier Rhodes at $10.4 million — the fact that he will be an unrestricted free agent after this season makes him rare among the team’s young defensive stars.
Barr is one of only three defensive players without a multiyear contract, along with veterans Brian Robison and Sheldon Richardson, both on one-year deals.
Coach Mike Zimmer said recently: “Anthony is my guy, number one. We are unequivocally not trying to trade Anthony. He’s the first draft pick we ever had with me.”
And there’s no doubt that Barr, who has averaged 70.8 tackles in four NFL seasons and also has 10½ sacks, four fumble recoveries and an interception, is an integral part of the defense, even if his stats don’t stand out like some others.
Asked if he believes he deserves a new contract, Barr said: “I’m not too worried about that. I’m trying to get better and keep growing with this team, and hopefully accomplish some big things this year. That’s what my focus is.”
Zimmer said Barr “has helped this defense go from 32nd or 31st to pretty good,” and the UCLA product said the unit can still improve after being the best defense in the league in 2017.
“There are some things we really want to get better at,” Barr said. “I think end-of-game situations, two-minute situations, we can get better at. The critical situations of the game, sometimes we weren’t as detailed as we needed to be. So just continue to give attention to detail, stop the run, and we’ll continue to get better.”
Does the way the season ended for the defense — with a tough second half against the Saints in the divisional playoffs and a blowout loss against the Eagles in the NFC Championship Game — give the players motivation?
“There’s a lot of things we did wrong in that game, and things we wish we could have done differently — but it’s going to be a good learning experience for us going forward,” Barr said. “Hopefully if we’re in that situation again, we’ll have a better idea of how to perform and execute.”
And while Barr made his third consecutive Pro Bowl last season, he is still daily trying to improve his game before the season starts.
“Oh, man, it’s a long list of things, still a long list of things I need to continue to improve,” he said. “I’m just coming out here, continuing to work with the guys, being with this defense now for about five years, it has been a growing process, a learning process, but we’ve all grown together. We’ve had our bumps and bruises along the way, but we’re a confident group and we’ll continue to be that way.”
Healthy and improving
Barr has played in at least 12 games every season, but he did battle a big injury as a rookie in 2014, when knee surgery ended his season.
In 2015 he missed two games because of injuries. But since then, Barr has played 34 regular-season and playoff games without missing one.
“That’s a big part as you get older you learn that ability is even more important than capability, so you try to eat right, take good care of your body, get massages, stay in the weight room, all that good stuff,” said Barr, 26. “It has been a point of emphasis the past couple years for me.”
When Barr was told that Pro Football Focus named him one of the NFL’s best linebackers when it came to covering tight ends in the passing game, he said a big part of working with Zimmer is being able to play multiple roles.
“Whatever the defense asks us to do, you know on any given play, we try to do that to the best of our ability,” Barr said. “Whether it’s covering the running back, covering a tight end, playing zone, playing man, defending the run, blitzing — whatever the situation may be, we try to do our best at that. We have done a decent job so far.”
A veteran under Zimmer
And how does he view playing for Zimmer for his entire professional career?
“It makes it a lot of fun,” Barr said. “He gives us an opportunity to go and make plays. We work very hard together, we communicate very well, and he demands excellence. It’s important for us to continue to improve and continue to work together. And I think we’ll continue to be successful.”
When asked what he is looking to improve on this year, Barr said he is looking to rush the passer more often. He had only one sack last season, in Week 7 against Baltimore’s Joe Flacco.
“That has been a point of emphasis for me this offseason,” Barr said. “Working with the defensive line and the D-line coaches, it has been a good experience so far and hopefully I can continue to get better at that.”
When it comes to his career playing alongside his college teammate Eric Kendricks, Barr said their relationship has only grown.
“It has been a lot of fun. We have grown up in the league together and now we’re getting to the point where we’re almost considered veterans,” he said. “It has been a really good experience to have one of your good friends play on the same team, and I’m excited to continue to grow together.”
And while everyone is wondering about his contract, Barr said his goal is pretty simple.
“Win the division, win the Super Bowl,” he said.
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Sid Hartman can be heard on WCCO AM-830 at 8:40 a.m. Monday and Friday, 2 p.m. Friday and 10:30 a.m. Sunday. • email@example.com