Anthony Barr hits 'another level,' making decision tougher for Vikings

EAGAN, Minn. -- Anthony Barr's future with the Minnesota Vikings is cloudy beyond the 2018 season. The linebacker is playing out his fifth-year option, meaning the Vikings will have to make a decision about whether they should let him walk in free agency.

The way Barr, 26, has performed in recent weeks, highlighted by a current two-game sack streak, makes Minnesota’s decision more difficult.

Barr recorded the first multi-sack (two) game of his career against the Miami Dolphins on Sunday. His opportunities to rush the quarterback have increased over the past two weeks, having lined up a total of 30 times as a defensive end.

"It’s big," coach Mike Zimmer said. "He’s played outstanding, really the last month or so, maybe a little longer. Playing with great physicality, effort to the ball. He is doing a lot better in his pass-rushing. I think there were some times the other day that he showed up quite a bit on it."

Despite an up-and-down start to the season and three-game absence due to a hamstring injury, Barr was named to the Pro Bowl on Tuesday night for a fourth straight year. Since he was targeted repeatedly by Rams quarterback Jared Goff in Week 4, allowing four receptions for 119 yards, Vikings coaches made tweaks to what Barr was being asked to do, which led to him finding himself involved with fewer mismatches and the targets into his coverage decreasing.

Back in training camp, Barr regularly worked on his pass-rushing moves with the defensive line. Though that didn’t translate on the field immediately, teams now have to scheme for him in different ways.

"A lot of times teams always account for him," Zimmer said. "You don’t want to say all the time, because certain play-actions are designed to go certain ways. But drop-back passing game, we’ve had several teams this year that make him the fifth rusher every time and if he doesn’t come, he doesn’t come."

The Vikings were already one of the most successful teams with a standard four-man rush, and Barr has added another dimension to this stout defense.

"I don’t always like critiquing guys, because I’m a player, but obviously when you see him going downhill and working his pass-rush moves on people it’s hard to stop him, because he plays linebacker but he’s got the body of a D-end as well," safety Harrison Smith said. "But he can run about as well as our safeties. So he’s kind of got it all."

Added defensive end Danielle Hunter: "I think it adds an extra problem for them because we’ve got us up front and we’ve got Barr. Sometimes they’ll focus on us five and Mackensie (Alexander) comes out free. We’ve got guys in all levels that are able to go out there and just be able to rush the quarterback."

And it’s a role Barr has repeatedly said he wants to fulfill, noting after the Miami game how he’s better at rushing the QB than he is dropping into coverage. The former first-round pick racked up 23.5 sacks from 2012 to 2013 at UCLA, where he was regularly placed in position to pressure the quarterback off the edge.

While he was sidelined in Weeks 7-11, Barr focused on how he could get better.

"When you’re injured, I think you get time to look yourself in the mirror and figure out things you maybe could do better and different ways you can help," Barr said. "Obviously, I feel we’ve been playing to my strengths the last few weeks and going forward and doing stuff like that, rushing the passer. That’s something we worked on pretty tough all offseason. Just trying to see those things I guess come to fruition a little bit. It’s a positive for myself and for the team. We’re playing well, so hopefully we can keep that going."

Barr was the odd man out this offseason, with the Vikings doling out contract extensions to fellow linebacker Eric Kendricks, Hunter and wide receiver Stefon Diggs. Given restrictions with their salary cap in coming years, keeping Barr could get tricky. The Vikings could elect to place the franchise tag on him in 2019 and work out a long-term deal later on. But adding sack numbers could drive his value up further, possibly pricing himself out of what the Vikings would be able to pay him.

"I really don’t know," Barr said about his long-term future in Minnesota. "I have no answer for that. I like it here, but a lot of things have to happen for that to come together. Like I’ve been saying, I’m not totally concerned about it. I know that’s approaching, but it will take care of itself when it gets here. But for now, I’m trying to get two more wins."

Regardless of what happens in the offseason, Barr has helped spark the Vikings' defense down the stretch of the regular season.

"He’s been playing really, really good," Zimmer said. "He’s always been a good player. I think he’s probably taking it to another level right now."