As the Eagles made their plans for free agency shopping in 2013, they identified one front seven player they really wanted. The Eagles brought defensive lineman Ricky Jean-Francois to town on the first day of free agency and hoped to get him signed. The two sides couldn't work anything out.
I was bummed with Jean-Francois left to make other visits. He was an experienced 3-4 player and had the ability to play nose tackle or end. The Eagles didn't have any set 3-4 pieces so Jean-Francois seemed like an important target. Unfortunately he was looking for big money and the Eagles didn't feel he was worth that. The Colts did, and they gave Jean-Francois a big contract.
The Eagles then turned their attention to some other options, one of them being Connor Barwin. He came to Philly and signed a reasonable deal (heavily backloaded). Barwin was immediately penciled in as the left outside linebacker, but expectations weren't exactly sky high.
Barwin played well in 2013, but didn't post big numbers. He's the kind of linebacker that usually isn't going to post gaudy stats because he is a complete player. There is no stat for covering the tight end in the flat and Barwin was used a lot in coverage last year. Barwin did have 5 sacks in 2013, which is a reasonable total. The area where he stood out was in pass deflections. Barwin had 10, which was one of the highest totals in the league for a linebacker. And some of the PD's came at crucial moments. He knocked down a 4th down pass in the season finale against Dallas. That killed a drive and may have saved points.
Eagles fans really took to Barwin. He was a good player on the field, but seemed like a great guy off the field. He was active in the community. You could see him riding his bike around or riding SEPTA to get somewhere across town. Local and national articles came out detailing what an interesting guy he was.
Expectations for Barwin were basically the same for this year. Play the run well. Get some sacks. Bat down some passes. Be solid in coverage. Eagles fans would have been happy with a repeat of that. But that's not what they got.
Nine games into the 2014 season, Barwin has 10.5 sacks and looks like he is headed to the Pro Bowl. He just had a dominant performance against the Panthers in a nationally televised game. The world got to see Barwin at his best. He racked up 3.5 sacks. Barwin had a couple of spectacular moments where he tossed offensive linemen to the ground as if they were blocking dummies. Those were big time "Wow!" moments. Barwin was used as a spy against Cam Newton and did a great job. Newton ran for a season low six yards. There was a pass play where Barwin covered a wide receiver 20 yards down the field and forced an incompletion due to tight coverage.
I haven't seen an Eagles linebacker make a variety of plays like that since the days of William Thomas or Seth Joyner. Barwin put on a show and is getting a lot of recognition for it. He was interviewed by SportsCenter and the NFL Network this week.
I can't help but think of Barwin as the anti-Jason Babin. The Eagles brought in Babin in 2011 to be a pass rusher. He was the left end in a scheme that was perfect for him. Babin had 18 sacks that year. While that was a really impressive sack total, it came at a cost. The Wide-9 front put a ton of pressure on linebackers and defensive backs. The team was 16th in the league in run defense and players in the back seven developed bad habits while trying to fill gaps and cover on the same plays. Babin's personal success both helped and hurt the team.
Beyond the numbers, Babin wasn't a good guy. His teammates, aside from Trent Cole, didn't love him. The media didn't like him. He certainly wasn't a presence in the community.
Compare all of that to Barwin. His success is coming within the framework of the scheme. Barwin isn't selling out to go get the quarterback on each play. He remains a top run defender. He still covers on a regular basis and does a good job of that. The big difference is that this year when Barwin rushes, he's getting results. Defensive coordinator Bill Davis has used his players more creatively. Sometimes Barwin rushes from the left, sometimes the right. There are times when he lines up like a defensive tackle. Other times Barwin comes up the middle like a blitzing inside linebacker.
Barwin also isn't racking up meaningless sacks. His two best games this year came against the Giants and Panthers. The Giants game was the Eagles first shutout since 1996. The defense looked dominant that night. And the Eagles led the Panthers 45-7 in a dominant performance before giving up a couple of garbage-time touchdowns that made the score slightly more respectable for Carolina.
I don't know if Barwin can sustain this level of production, but I do know that his effort will never be a question. Barwin isn't going to let the success go to his head. He's going to continue doing the dirty work when that is needed. He'll set the edge. He'll cover tight ends and running backs. And he'll get after the passer when he's told to. I hope Barwin gets to spend some up close and personal time with Aaron Rodgers on Sunday.