EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. — When the Minnesota Vikings drafted Anthony Barr with the ninth-overall pick this year, many wondered how new coach and defensive mastermind Mike Zimmer planned to utilize the speedy outside linebacker from UCLA.
Barr was an intriguing prospect, coming in at 6-foot-5 and 255 pounds and blessed with size, speed and strength.
But Barr had spent his two years at UCLA as a stand-up outside pass-rusher in a 3-4 scheme. Zimmer’s base scheme was rooted in the 4-3, though his history suggested he was flexible in his defensive packages.
Two preseason games have shown the versatility of Barr — and Zimmer.
Barr, listed as a starting outside linebacker, has 1.5 sacks in his first two NFL preseason games while playing as a linebacker and defensive end.
"I see using Barr a lot in a lot of different ways," Zimmer said on Monday.
Barr gained a half-sack in the first preseason game. He rushed off the right side as a stand-up linebacker, working his way around the pocket and then coming back around as the pocket collapsed and taking down Oakland quarterback Matt Schaub, who was forced up by Vikings defensive tackle Tom Johnson.
Johnson and Barr shared that one. Barr’s second sack was all his.
He rushed from the right end, starting the play with his hand in the ground, and caught Arizona quarterback Drew Stanton from behind, stripping the ball away to end the first half in Minnesota’s 30-28 win on Saturday.
"He’s two for two," linebacker Chad Greenway said after Saturday’s game. "He’s got great instincts. He’s a great kid. He works hard and he’s humble. He wants to be great and he works at it."
The strip-sack on Stanton was a glimpse into how Barr dominated at UCLA, where he had 23.5 sacks, 41.5 tackles for loss and 10 forced fumbles in his two years as a linebacker.
"He’s pretty good with his hand up or down to be honest with you," Zimmer said. "He’s got such great acceleration."
Barr’s remarkable athleticism was paired with Zimmer’s shrewd instincts for putting defensive players into situations to succeed.
One look the Vikings unveiled on Saturday was Barr playing right end, with Everson Griffen shifting to the other side. Normal left end Brian Robison slid inside and played tackle.
"He’s a physical freak of nature when you look at him; his size to play linebacker like that," Robison said after Saturday’s game. "He’s played well for us and hopefully he gives us that versatility on defense to where we can all just move around, different parts moving in the defense and allow us to keep offenses offbeat."
The transition was slowed early as Barr finished school and missed much of Minnesota’s offseason program. It didn’t take long for Barr to prove himself in training camp and he was working exclusively as a first-team linebacker a week into camp.
Working with his hand in the ground is a different experience for Barr, who has said he only came out of a three-point stance "maybe two downs" while at UCLA.
"It’s important to separate the two," Barr said of playing linebacker and end. "There’s not much crossover, so you’ve got to be sure to be able to understand where the difference comes into play."
Barr enjoys the different look and said he’s seen opponents react because of his speed.
"Yeah, (opposing offensive linemen have) been out pretty quick the last week, and I’m sure they’ll continue to do so," Barr said.
Zimmer has been careful about when he’s expanding Barr’s role, making sure the rookie is ready for the mental workload.
"We’re trying to be smart about how much, because there’s a lot of things you can do with him," Zimmer said. "When we move him to a different position, when we move him to another spot, we’re very conscientious of what he can handle at that particular time. As we expand throughout the course of the season, that will expand as well."
The tall, speedy Barr gave Zimmer a unique piece in which to build his defense around in his first year as the Vikings coach. The versatility with each will grow together.