Von Miller arrived in Denver as, essentially, a fully-formed superstar. The second-overall pick in the 2011 draft, Miller had 11.5 sacks as a rookie, 18.5 in his second year and 106.5 through his nine seasons so far. The only time he didn't make the Pro Bowl was when he lost six games to an NFL suspension in 2013. He's currently four years into a $114 million contract.
Shaquil Barrett arrived in Denver three years after Miller, as an undrafted free agent out of Colorado State. He spent his rookie season mostly on the Broncos' practice squad. He took his defensive snaps where he could in a rotation with the likes of Miller, Demarcus Ware, Malik Jackson, Shane Ray, Derek Wolfe and Bradley Chubb. Barrett produced well with what playing time he got, with 5.5 sacks in 2015 and 14 over four seasons.
Miller and Barrett are both in Orlando this week, preparing for the NFL's 2020 Pro Bowl. They're not teammates anymore; in fact they're on opposite sides of Sunday's all-star game. Miller made it as usual for the Broncos but Barrett is now a Tampa Bay Buccaneer, and he's in his first Pro Bowl after leading the NFL with 19.5 sacks in 2019.
After his first Pro Bowl practice on Wednesday, Barrett laughed when he was told that Miller had mentioned he always believed in his former teammate's big-time sack potential.
"He probably knew I could do it because he was watching me watch him," said Barrett. "I was watching him a lot, getting everything I can from him. He always told me that. He always told me he did see this from me, so it's not like he's just saying it. He knew it, he always said it in the media, I just never had the right opportunity."
The opportunity came in the form of a one-year deal from the Buccaneers as an unrestricted free agent last March. Thanks to what he did with that opportunity, Barrett is closing in on a new deal that is sure to be bigger than the last; he hopes it is in Tampa again. In between those two contracts, it was a good time for him to reflect on how much has changed in the last 10 months.
"Yeah, I do think about it here and there," Barrett admitted. "It was a huge leap. Like, I was doing it last year but I wasn't nearly at this level. It just feels like everything just fell into place. The glory goes to everybody – the Bucs, to me, to the fans, everybody, the schemes. Everybody's got something to do with this."
Of the hundreds of players who switched teams as unrestricted free agents last spring, only two went on to qualify for their first Pro Bowls: Barrett and Oakland Raiders tackle Trent Brown. That's an "A+" stamp on Barrett's signing, and for him it's a validation of what he thought he could do and the hard work that made it happen. The Pro Bowl week is just beginning but it already feels good to Barrett to be rubbing elbows with the NFL's elite.
"I'm just excited to be up here, that they voted me into the Pro Bowl," he said. "I'm happy to be here and to celebrate.
"It means a lot, just hanging out with the guys. We were up there last night just talking about moves that we see each other doing in a game that was working and stuff. It's just admiration of each other's play style and just the type of people we are. It was just cool to be able to talk and just hang out."
Pro Bowl practices are famously low-speed and light on any real scheming. The NFC worked out for about 45 minutes on Wednesday and when it went offense-vs.-defense Barrett mostly jogged through coverage reps across the middle. He may or may not be unleashed for a significant amount of time as an edge rusher on Sunday. But he has plenty of time this week to trade notes on pass-rushing moves with the other top quarterback hunters in the NFL.
"Yeah, we most definitely talk about … moves," said Barrett. "It's just cool because I do watch these guys on film all the time and I do see how good they are, and just to be able to talk to them, just get advice from them, and possibly give them advice too, is cool."
The next step for Barrett is to be a repeat Pro Bowler like his buddy, Miller. For now, he's a first-timer…but he's fitting right in after his big leap forward in 2019.