Every time Mike Zimmer popped in the tape of Anthony Barr -- and the Vikings' new coach excitedly rewatched a few of his games the past couple of days -- he didn't see an inexperienced prospect who had been a defender for just two years and who still had a lot to learn.
He saw an impressive athlete who was constantly in the backfield and appeared ready to contribute at the next level right away.
"He's like a fawn," Zimmer said of the former UCLA linebacker. "He's just learning some of these things. But it's not like he's so raw that he's not a good football player. Because he is a good football player. ... I'm excited for the chance to take him and mold him into what I envision him to be, and I think that we will."
With the first pick of the Zimmer era, General Manager Rick Spielman gave the former Bengals defensive coordinator one of the best pass rushers in this class. He made him wait a few minutes, though.
And he also passed on the fans' favorite, Texas A&M quarterback Johnny Manziel.
When the Vikings first were on the clock, they quickly traded back a spot, from eighth to ninth, and gained a fifth-round pick, No. 145 overall, from the Cleveland Browns. Spielman said the Vikings got offers to drop down even further, but he heard rumblings that other teams were interested in Barr and feared he might lose him.
"We didn't want to go too far down because I thought there were a couple hot spots of where he could go right behind us," Spielman said.
So moments later, they selected the 22-year-old Barr, who started his UCLA career by lining up in the backfield instead of bursting into it.
The Los Angeles native, a four-star recruit, was a 228-pound fullback early in his UCLA career. He rushed for 29 yards on six carries as a freshman, caught nine passes for 66 yards and was named UCLA's rookie of the year.
But the presence of Johnathan Franklin and Derrick Coleman, now NFL running backs, limited Barr's opportunities as a runner.
And after Barr grew 2 inches before his junior season, UCLA coach Jim Mora and his staff moved Barr to outside linebacker.
During his two seasons on the defensive side of the ball, Barr made 149 tackles, forced nine fumbles and racked up 23.5 sacks. He had 40.5 tackles for a loss, more than South Carolina defensive end Jadeveon Clowney and Buffalo outside linebacker Khalil Mack, who were top-five selections Thursday night.
"After Clowney, we felt he had the most potential to be the next-best edge pass rusher in the draft," Spielman said.
Spielman said the plan is for Barr to play strong-side linebacker on early downs. Zimmer said that he and veteran Chad Greenway can both be on the field at once, and Barr's role could change in passing situations to take advantage of his pass-rushing ability.
Barr often will be asked to chase quarterbacks -- Spielman said the presence of standout NFC North passers Aaron Rodgers, Matthew Stafford and Jay Cutler inspired the pick -- but the coaching staff believes that he can also drop into coverage and not be a liability.
"He has great upside as a potential edge pass rusher. He's also athletic enough to drop into coverage. I know we had a lot of talks about how he can be utilized during our draft meetings," Spielman said. "He can stand up and play the SAM linebacker position for us. He is very good in coverage but also can be a mismatch when putting him on running backs in blitzing situations."
The Vikings, who still plan to draft a quarterback this weekend, passed on Manziel and Louisville's Teddy Bridgewater to take Barr.
Spielman said the Vikings have quarterbacks they like in later rounds, and they didn't want to reach for one in the first round when they could make their new coach happy with an athlete like Barr.
"I'm really, really, really excited about him," Zimmer said.
(c)2014 Star Tribune (Minneapolis)
Visit the Star Tribune (Minneapolis) at www.startribune.com
Distributed by MCT Information Services