EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. — Forget Johnny Football, the Minnesota Vikings were focused on defense first.
With Heisman Trophy-winning Texas A&M quarterback Johnny Manziel still on the clock, Minnesota resisted the urge to draft their next franchise quarterback with the eighth overall pick and instead traded down one slot and selected UCLA’s Anthony Barr, an edge rusher to add to new coach Mike Zimmer’s defense.
Barr, 22, is a raw pass-rushing prospect after moving from running back to linebacker two seasons ago at UCLA. In two years as a linebacker, Barr had 148 tackles, 23.5 sacks, 41.5 tackles for loss and nine forced fumbles. Barr visited Minnesota last month during the Vikings’ annual top-30 visit for draft prospects.
"Just had a great time, felt very comfortable with the coaching staff and I’m looking forward to learn from coach Zimmer," Barr said. "He’s a very smart defensive coach, so looking forward to picking his brain, meeting my teammates and getting to work. I couldn’t be more excited to be a Minnesota Viking."
The Vikings traded back one spot with the Cleveland Browns for the second time in three years, adding a fifth-round choice (No. 145 overall) in the deal. Cleveland, who had traded back from No. 4 with the Buffalo Bills, selected Oklahoma State cornerback Justin Gilbert.
Minnesota had targeted Barr before the draft started, according to Zimmer and the team waited patiently knowing he’d be available. General manager Rick Spielman said he felt confident Barr wasn’t a target of the Browns and was happy to add a fifth-round pick.
"Going through our mocks and scenarios and all the intel and stuff, felt that if we did not take him here that he was not going to last very long," Spielman said. "Because after Clowney, we felt he had the potential to be the next best edge pass rusher in the draft. So, we were able to move down one spot. We did have some calls. We didn’t want to go too far down because we felt there were a couple of hot spots on where he would go right behind us."
Barr’s athleticism truly stands out. Spielman said he ran a 4.47-second, 40-yard dash at his Pro Day and his 20-yard shuttle and 3-cone drill times were as fast as many of the defensive backs in the draft.
"He is a tremendous athlete," Spielman said. "He has a great upside as a potential edge pass rusher. He’s also athletic enough to drop in coverage. I know we had a lot of talks about how he’d be utilized in this system when we were going through our draft meetings. We feel that he can stand up, play the ‘Sam’ linebacker position for us. He is very good in coverage but can also be a mismatch as far as putting him on running backs in blitzing situations. I know coach Zimmer and his defense is very aggressive."
Barr was the third pass rusher off the board after South Carolina defensive end Jadeveon Clowney went No. 1 overall to the Houston Texans and the Oakland Raiders picked Buffalo linebacker Khalil Mack at No. 5.
Zimmer is eager to work with Barr’s athleticism and mold the raw aspects of his game. Zimmer said he’s never had a linebacker with the size and speed of Barr in his time as a defensive coordinator.
"When you think about it, the guy has played two years on defense and has done the things that he has does and has the athletic ability that he has and he’s like a fawn," Zimmer said. "He’s just learning some of these things. It’s not that he is so raw that he is not a good football player, because he is a really good football player. I don’t want anybody to think that because he is inexperienced that he is not a good football player. He will be good. I’m excited about the chance to take him and mold him into what I really envision him to be which I think will be good."
Minnesota sees Barr as a standup linebacker in the base defense and an edge rusher for pass-rushing situations. Spielman and Zimmer said Barr profiles as a ‘Sam’ linebacker, which is more of a pass rusher in Zimmer’s defense. Chad Greenway could move to a ‘Will’ linebacker role.
"I think I can fit in to a number of different positions," Barr said. "I think the outside linebacker spot is where they find me at the time. I don’t know if that’s changed. But I think I’ll be able to come in and hopefully make an impact right away."
Barr, who said he approached UCLA coach Jim Mora about switching to linebacker as a junior, said he liked to watch NFL linebackers Von Miller, Aldon Smith, Clay Matthews and Cliff Avril.
"Just how their motor," Barr said of what he takes from watching Miller and Matthews. "I think a lot of Clay’s sacks come just off of relentlessness. He might not have the best technique or whatever but he gets the quarterback very often because he just continues to work, continues to work the entire play, never takes a play off. I think what’s I’ve got from him."
Zimmer replaced Leslie Frazier as Minnesota’s head coach in January and made the move from the Cover-2 defense to Zimmer’s more aggressive, attacking style. The Vikings re-signed Everson Griffen to a five-year, $42.5 million contract to replace Jared Allen as the starting right end. Left end Brian Robison was signed to a contract extension during last season.
Barr gives Zimmer more options in getting to the quarterback in a division that includes Green Bay’s Aaron Rodgers, Detroit’s Matthew Stafford and Chicago’s Jay Cutler.
But the interest in Manziel was apparently real, too.
FOX Sports’ Jay Glazer reported the Vikings tried to trade back into the first round with the Philadelphia Eagles to select Manziel. Curiously, Cleveland also was on the phone with Philadelphia and according to Glazer outbid Minnesota for the right to jump to the No. 22 pick, where the Browns selected Manziel.
Cleveland gave up the No. 26 overall pick and included a third-round pick, No. 83, to the Eagles.
Minnesota did manage to trade back into the first round to get a quarterback after all, though, dealing their second- and fourth-round picks to the Seattle Seahawks for the No. 32 overall, and final, pick of the first round where the Vikings selected Louisville’s Teddy Bridgewater.
"I think there is going to be enough depth in this draft to potentially get a quarterback," Spielman said before drafting Bridgewater. "Like I said, we have specific quarterbacks targeted at certain points in this draft but I am not going to pass up a potential impact guy especially on the defensive side of the ball."