You’d be forgiven if you haven’t heard of the best defensive player in the NFL this year. After all, the Baltimore native went undrafted out of Colorado State in 2014 and spent some unremarkable years with the Denver Broncos before signing a low-key, one-year, $5 million deal with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

Then things got weird in the best possible way for Shaquil Barrett.

Under the guidance of Tampa Bay Coach Bruce Arians and defensive coordinator Todd Bowles, Barrett has been unleashed. He leads the league with nine sacks over the first four games. That’s three more Myles Garret and Clay Matthews, who are tied for second with six, and eight more than Aaron Donald, the reigning two-time defensive player of the year. Heck, almost a third of the league’s teams — the Baltimore Ravens, Buffalo Bills, Miami Dolphins, Washington Redskins, Atlanta Falcons, Cincinnati Bengals, Denver Broncos, New York Jets, Oakland Raiders and Philadelphia Eagles — don’t yet have nine sacks.

Barrett’s four sacks against the New York Giants in Week 3 tied Tampa Bay’s single-game sack record set by Simeon Rice (2003) and Marcus Jones (2000). That was Barrett’s second consecutive game with at least three sacks, making him the 16th player in NFL history to accomplish that feat and the first since Ezekiel Ansah did it for Detroit in 2017. Since sacks became an official statistic in 1982, only three other players have matched Barrett’s start of nine sacks through the first four games of the season: Mark Gastineau (1984), Kevin Greene (1998) and Kabeer Gbaja-Biamila (2001).

Barrett’s also set up to topple Michael Strahan’s all-time sack record (22½), set in 2001. During that historic season, Strahan produced just 4½ sacks during the first four games, half of Barrett’s early total. Plus, Barrett has a relatively soft stretch of opponents immediately after Tampa’s Week 7 bye: the Tennessee Titans (Week 8), Seattle Seahawks (Week 9) and Arizona Cardinals (Week 10). Each of those teams ranks 26th or worse at pass protection, according to Football Outsiders’ offensive line metrics. That could offer perfect timing for Barrett to position himself within striking distance of Strahan’s record.

“This is more than I imagined, honestly,” Barrett told ESPN. “I feel like the sky is the limit. I’m just ready to keep working on the practice field, the film room, keep improving and just trying to help the team win.”

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Barrett, the NFC Defensive Player of the Month for September, is more than just a sack machine. According to Sports Info Solutions, he ranks second in total pressures (24 sacks, hits, hurries and knockdowns) after Khalil Mack (25), and his interception in Sunday’s upset against the Los Angeles Rams made him the first player in 37 years to record at least eight sacks and an interception in his team’s first four games. Two of Barrett’s four sacks against the Giants caused fumbles, both of which were recovered by Tampa Bay, making him one of seven players in NFL history to produce four sacks and two forced fumbles in a single game.

By Barrett’s own admission he had just two pass-rush moves out of college, a bull rush and a double swipe, but his improved repertoire — cultivated while playing alongside Von Miller, DeMarcus Ware and Bradley Chubb in Denver — has been on full display in 2019. Barrett beat the Panthers offensive line three times in the third quarter, and as David DeChant of Field Level Media pointed out, one of the moves he used against Panthers offensive lineman Daryl Williams was a “cross-chop to rip,” a move similar to the one Atlanta Falcons defensive end Adrian Clayborn employed to record six sacks in a game in 2017.

Barrett used a “push-pull dip-and-rip” move and an old-fashioned bull rush for the other two, sacks against Williams according to DeChant. It’s worth noting Williams is no turnstile offensive tackle. A knee injury limited him to one game in 2018 but he allowed zero sacks over 56 snaps in that contest. In 2017, he was the league’s highest-rated right tackle, per the game charters at Pro Football Focus.

Other pass-rush techniques used by Barrett this season, per DeChant, include “a stutter inside counter, a mesmerizing Euro-step 2-hand swipe and a double stutter (outside-inside-outside)” against the Giants’ high-priced left tackle Nate Solder, plus a “hand swipe dip-and-rip” that helped force an interception off Rams quarterback Jared Goff.

“He’s a natural,” Tampa Bay outside linebackers coach Larry Foote told the Tampa Bay Times. “If you’ve ever seen a basketball player who can weave through the defense, he has that. He has those hips who can bend and can move at the same time. All he needs is a little angle to get to the quarterback, and that’s stuff you can’t teach or coach, and he’s just a natural with it.”

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