To count down the days until Vikings rookies, quarterbacks and select veterans report to Mankato on July 23, we will reveal our ranking of the 17 most important Vikings players heading into the 2017 season. Look for the next player on our list every weekday morning at Access Vikings.
This list, created by Matt Vensel and Andrew Krammer, is not a ranking of the best players on the team, though sheer talent is obviously an essential factor. It is a ranking of the players whose upcoming season will have the biggest impact on the franchise, whether it’s in 2017 or beyond.
Coming in at No. 5 on our list is outside linebacker Anthony Barr.
Throughout his first two NFL seasons, Anthony Barr made a monster play seemingly every other week. There was his game-winning touchdown in Tampa Bay, his huge strip-sack of Matt Ryan in Atlanta and his division-clinching swat of Aaron Rodgers’ Hail Mary try at Lambeau.
By the end of the 2015 season, Barr, thanks in part to making big plays in many different ways, had established himself as one of the top outside linebackers in the league, reflected in his first career Pro Bowl invite.
Last season, though, those splash plays dried up and Barr got pushed around as his production and level of play plummeted. While Barr still somehow made another Pro Bowl as an injury replacement, his grade from Pro Football Focus in 2016 was about half of what it was in 2015.
We know about coach Mike Zimmer’s disdain for Pro Football Focus (even though the Vikings are among the company’s many NFL customers). But even he conceded Barr was not playing at his normal level when he said in December that Barr, who was not listed on the official injury report once last season, had been showing “a tendency to coast a little bit.”
Barr’s final stat line: 70 tackles, two sacks and a forced fumble — plus perhaps a bruised ego from Zimmer’s verbal elbow drop from the top rope.
This spring, Barr acknowledged that he can play better than what we saw last season and said he can get better in a number of areas. He did not, however, disclose what those areas are or elaborate on his game plan.
Barr, more than any other player on the roster, needs a bounce-back season in 2017, because except for maybe star safety Harrison Smith, no Vikings defender can wreck a game plan in so many different ways.
Not many players of his stature can run stride for stride down the sideline with speedy running backs. He can do a lot of damage as a double-A-gap blitzer. And he can hit hard when he wants to, like when Giants tight end Larry Donnell tried to block him and ended up with a concussion.
If the Vikings can get that guy back, and his good buddy Eric Kendricks continues to get better at middle linebacker, Zimmer and the Vikings will have an every-down linebacker duo that few NFL teams could match.
If they don’t, and Barr coasts through another mediocre campaign, it may prove difficult for the defense to drag the Vikings back to the playoffs.
The Star Tribune’s ranking of the 17 most important Vikings in 2017:
5. Anthony Barr, OLB
11. Trae Waynes, CB
16. Pat Elflein, C/G