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Connor Barwin has four sacks and one interception, but it's impossible to quanitfy the value and versatility he brings to Billy Davis' defense. (USA Today Images)
The position is called Jack Linebacker.
“The jack-of-all-trades is what it was originally named,” Eagles defensive coordinator Billy Davis said.
Connor Barwin is the ideal guy for the job.
Twelve weeks into his first season with the Eagles, we’re all seeing just how effective a player Barwin is.
Sacks and interceptions are convenient ways to judge 3-4 outside linebackers, but Barwin doesn’t need stats … although he loves to get 'em.
Barwin is simply Davis’ everything-backer. One part corner, one part defensive end, a little inside backer, a little outside linebacker, Barwin has been instrumental in the Eagles’ defensive turnaround this year.
Even if the numbers don’t always show it.
“Hopefully, I can have those stats too,” Barwin said. “But yeah, you just do your job, man. As long as we keep winning and we keep playing well on defense, everybody’s going to be happy.”
The Eagles signed Barwin to a six-year, $36 million contract on March 16, a deal that included a $3 million signing bonus and cap numbers ranging from $3.7 million this year to $9.5 million in 2018.
After a decade of inept Eagles linebacker play, general manager Howie Roseman and head coach Chip Kelly put together a promising group this year, with second-year pro Mychal Kendricks and Pro Bowl-candidate DeMeco Ryans inside, converted defensive end Trent Cole and Barwin outside, and revived Brandon Graham situationally rushing the passer.
One of the big reasons the Eagles are 7-5 and looking for their fifth straight win when they face the Lions on Sunday is a dramatically improved defense, and Barwin has been a huge part of the reversal.
“Connor makes the scheme go,” Davis said. “I move him around multiple spots. He's inside, on the outside, on the right, outside on the left, he's over guard. We move him, and we have different techniques we use with him and he's great with picking them up.
“If I need an edge set on one side or a certain reroute or chip, Connor is the guy we go to. He wears a lot of hats and doesn't get as many rushes as he would like but does a lot of things for the defense that it's unselfish on his part.
“He would love to be rushing every down and getting more sacks, but he's dropping and doing more other things and never says a word about it.”
Barwin does have four sacks, one behind Trent Cole for the team lead and one more than he had last year in his final season with the Texans. He also has an interception.
But as long as Davis uses him as a Jackbacker, it’s unlikely he’ll approach his career year of 2011, when he recorded 11½ sacks -- fifth-most among all NFL linebackers.
“I think when you see me lining up at corner, I think guys know that I’m not rushing very much,” Barwin said with a laugh. “I think guys understand that. But yeah, I don’t rush as much as some other guys, but that’s all right. When I do, I have to take advantage of those opportunities.”
Ryans and Barwin played three years together with the Texans, Ryans leaving for Philly after the 2011 season and Barwin two years later.
So Ryans, who’s enjoying a terrific year of his own, understands how unique Barwin’s skill set is and just how well Davis is taking advantage of his unique combination of speed, athleticism, size and intelligence.
“When Connor first came into the league, just seeing his athleticism, being a former basketball player, just the way he works at his craft, he’s just a very athletic guy,” Ryans said.
“He can do whatever you want him to do on the field. If coach [Chip] Kelly needed him, he could probably line up and play tight end for us also. He’s that versatile of a guy.”
There are no numbers that reflect the season Barwin’s having other than team numbers. And the Eagles are 7-5 with a defense that’s gone an NFL-high eight straight weeks without allowing more than 21 points.
“I know some people had some questions because he doesn't have many sacks, but he [is] still pressuring the quarterback and setting the edge,” Kelly said.
“I think the key to your run defense is if you have two outside linebackers, like Connor and Trent that can set the edge, it's always a positive for you in the run game, because you're keeping the ball hemmed in because it's not getting outside of you.”
Barwin said he’s doing a lot more here than in Houston, where he lined up in the same spot all the time, rushing most of the time and dropping occasionally.
“Essentially, I was like a D-end and I dropped a little bit in Houston,” he said. “You set the edge and you rushed the quarterback.
“But here, some games that’s what we’re doing, some games I’m lining up over the big receiver, sometimes I’m lining up at corner, sometimes I’m on the right, the left, there’s a lot of moving that takes place, and that makes it hard for other teams to prepare as well, as it does for me.”
Barwin said he actually didn’t realize when he signed with the Eagles just how different Davis’ system would be from what he did in Houston.
“I figured it would be like the 3-4 I played in before,” he said. “But it’s a lot different.
“You get to move around, defenses don’t really know what you’re doing play-to-play. I think it’s challenging to prepare for, and it keeps me on my toes. I keep improving, I keep learning different positions and different techniques, so it’s been good.
“I know I’ve learned more about the back end of the defense, way more than I ever did when I played in Houston. That’s a tribute to [linebackers coach Bill McGovern] teaching it and me needing to know it. There’s definitely an awareness of what they’re doing behind me that I’ve never had before.”
Nobody appreciates Barwin more than Ryans, now in his fourth season playing alongside him.
“Connor, he’s that jack-of-all trades for our defense,” Ryans said. “He lines up all over the place. Connor is all over the place and teams don’t know whether he’s coming or dropping.
“With our defense, you never know where 98 is going to be and you never know what 98 is going to do. He’s a special player.”