ENGLEWOOD • Some NFL players lack ambition. Shaquil Barrett is not one of them.
“My goal: To keep progressing, keep getting better,” Barrett says at the end of Denver Broncos practice. “My pinnacle is to be the top defensive player in the league and help the team win championships, just leading the league in sacks and TFLs (tackles for losses.) I want that to be my pinnacle. I’m still just reaching and climbing.”
Um, that’s quite a pinnacle.
The question is where Barrett will be doing his future reaching and climbing as outside linebacker. It’s a complex scenario.
If the Broncos don’t sign him, he becomes an unrestricted free agent for 2019. This season, Barrett resides in a crowd of talented outside linebackers, including Shane Ray, Bradley Chubb and Von Miller. Next season, the crowd could thin, which increases Barrett’s value.
Does Barrett expect a 2019, and beyond, contract offer from the Broncos before the start of the season?
He smiles and pauses.
“I’m not expecting one,” he says. “If I do get one, I’m going to love it and I’m going to be happy about it, but I’m not expecting one.
“I’ve been here for a while. My kid is here. My home is here. We love it here. If I could stay here, that would be the ideal situation and that’s what I want but I understand it’s a business and players don’t always get what they want.”
It has been awhile. Barrett arrived at Colorado State in 2011 after Nebraska-Omaha, his first college home, dropped football. As a senior for the Rams in 2013, Barrett was spectacular, collecting 12 sacks and 20.5 tackles for loss. He led the Rams’ defense that devoured Air Force, 58-13, at Fort Collins.
Then, in a twist similar to the one quarterback Case Keenum endured after a sensational senior season at the University of Houston, no NFL team wanted Barrett enough to draft him. He was, the experts believed, too short at 6-foot.
He spent the 2014 season on the practice squad, never playing a down, his NFL future looking shaky. He emerged in 2015 as a destructive presence in the Bronco magnificent defense, starting nine games and rampaging to 5.5 sacks. He traveled from NFL nobody to NFL somebody.
“My journey has been a hard journey,” he says, “but I’m not surprised that I made it because I had the mindset I could do anything.
“My parents raised me with that mindset, a no-excuse mindset. ... No matter the odds, my parents wanted me to beat those odds.”
As Barrett prepares for his fourth season on the field, the question is if he has the potential to climb from solid to star. Cornerback Chris Harris has taken the long, and rare, journey from free agent to the past three Pro Bowls.
John Elway is pondering the Barrett question, even as we speak. In the offseason, he signed Barrett to a one-year $2.9 million deal, leaving a question mark hovering over the franchise’s long-term commitment to Barrett.
The Broncos are jammed at outside linebacker, meaning Barrett’s opportunities to shine could be limited. Shane Ray is enjoying an impressive camp. A splint has eased, for now, limitations on his damaged left wrist.
In the offseason, the Broncos declined Ray’s 2019 option, meaning Ray soon could be a free man. If he returns to the often-dominating player he was before injury, the Broncos will struggle to afford him.
Barrett is a big piece of the Broncos’ 2018 defense.
If Ray departs, Barrett becomes a much bigger piece in 2019.
He’s fine with challenges. In 2011, officials at Nebraska-Omaha delivered a jolt to Barrett.
He had played high school football 30 minutes from the Nebraska-Omaha campus. In an instant, he was forced to find a new home.
“I just had to man up and take it as a blessing in disguise,” Barrett says.
It was a blessing. Barrett jumped from Nebraska-Omaha’s Division II to CSU’s more lofty D-I, developed into a Mountain West superstar and, to top it off, defeated drastic odds to earn a big NFL paycheck.
He’ll be playing in the NFL in 2019.
Count on that. The question is where.
Barrett hopes he knows the answer as he battles to remain in his adopted home.