All-22: Examining Connor Barwin’s Role And Skill Set

Part of my contribution for this year’s Eagles Almanac (pre-order here!) focuses on the defense, and specifically Connor Barwin.

So I’ve been looking at quite a bit of All-22 over the past few days and have been surprised by some of the skills that Barwin brings to the table.

Barwin had 11.5 sacks during the 2011 regular season. Is he ever going to reach that mark again? If I had to bet my life savings (about 27 dollars, as of this afternoon), I’d say no. He only has 7.5 sacks in his other 37 career games (playoffs included).

But because of Barwin’s versatility, it’s easy to see why Howie Roseman, Chip Kelly and Billy Davis felt he could be a fit in this defense.

Take a look at this play against the Ravens in Week 7. Barwin starts off lined up against the tight end in the slot.

But just before the snap, he inches up to the line of scrimmage, and the inside linebacker rotates over to the tight end.

The one takeaway from Davis so far is that he wants to disguise pre-snap looks and make it difficult for opposing quarterbacks to know where the pressure is coming from. This is a good example of what he’s talking about.

I would describe Barwin’s pass-rush as more disciplined than explosive. He’s not going to consistently beat offensive tackles off the edge or with a bull-rush. But he is 6-4 with 33-inch arms and knows how to use his length.

Here, he bats down a Joe Flacco pass at the line of scrimmage.

Barwin knocked down five passes at the line of scrimmage last year. That was tied for first among outside linebackers, according to Pro Football Focus. No Eagles player last year had more than two.

More disguise with Barwin on the next play. He dances around the line of scrimmage a bit and is standing up inside the defensive end in this first shot.

But Barwin eventually moves to the right outside linebacker spot.

Instead of rushing the passer, though, he’s asked to pick up Ray Rice out of the backfield – not an easy task.

It’s not like Barwin blankets Rice, but he’s athletic enough to stay close and trips up the running back short of the first down on a 3rd-and-10 reception.

Overall, Barwin was better in coverage than I was expecting. According to PFF, he was asked to drop back 13.6 percent of the time on pass plays last year. I looked at the 25 3-4 OLBs who played the most snaps last year, and on average, they dropped back into coverage about 22 percent of the time.

It seemed like Barwin didn’t drop back more because of the Texans’ scheme (and because he was coming off an 11.5-sack year). Rushing the passer is still the top priority for outside linebackers, but don’t be surprised if Barwin’s asked to show off his versatility more in the Eagles’ scheme.

One more example here against the Lions. He lines up opposite tight end Brandon Pettigrew.

Pettigrew stays in to block for a moment before going into his route. Matthew Stafford actually wanted to go to Pettigrew on this play, but Barwin was all over him.

You can see Barwin is man-to-man on Pettigrew. There’s no help to that side of the field. Stafford held on to the ball, tried to scramble and was taken down after a 1-yard gain.

Again, much more on Barwin coming in the Eagles Almanac, but overall, I saw a more versatile skill set than I was anticipating.

Based on the games I watched, I didn’t see a top-end edge rusher. About the midway point between the three sacks he had last year and the 11.5 he had in 2011 seems fair.

In the Eagles’ defense, Barwin will likely be asked to perform a variety of duties. Remember, this team doesn’t have another guy on the roster with NFL experience as a 3-4 outside linebacker. Expect Barwin to line up in different spots and be used by Davis to try and confuse opposing offenses. The skill set shown above will likely be tested in 2013.

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  • brian

    Wasn’t Demeco Ryans in a 3-4 in Houston?

    • ohitsdom

      He was, but played inside linebacker. Same position he’ll play this year.

      • Brian

        My point is that Barwin is not the only 3-4 experienced linebacker on the team.

        • Philly0312

          And Kendricks played in a 3-4 in college. The only LB of the 5 normally mentioned as possible starters (Cole, Graham, Barwin, Ryans, Kendrick) who hasn’t play LB in a 3-4 is Cole…..because he isn’t a LB. Hope he can transition well, although I expect he will still take reps at DE a bit too, even though undersized for a 3-4 DE. It would be similar to a 1-5-5 prowl nickle package.

          • illadelphia21

            Graham also never played in a 3-4 as an LB

        • sdk152

          I meant to say 3-4 OUTSIDE linebacker. Thanks for the heads-up. Just fixed it. -SK

  • JofreyRice

    Nice breakdown. Despite the athletic talent and size, I don’t think Barwin’s ever been, or probably ever will be, a top-tier passrusher. I agree with you that employing the versatile skill set detailed above is probably the best case scenario for how the Eagles use him–a SAM linebacker that can at least be competent in rushing the passer, dropping in coverage & playing the run (i.e. staying close enough with TEs & Running backs that they don’t rip off big gains). Let Cole & Graham & Cox provide the consistent passrush from the other side, and hope that when Barwin comes, he’ll catch the RT off-guard.

  • Engwrite

    Before the Eagles picked him to play DE, Graham was seen as a 1st round pick but as a OLB in a 3-4 defense. If I recall correctly, the Eagles were chastised by the national press for picking someone too small to play DE. Now back down to the 255-260 range, I would expect Graham to be the preferred pass rushing OLB in the new eagles Defense.

    • cliff henny

      wait, Reid drafted a small out of position guy?

      • Engwrite

        I believe he drafted a ‘fast ball.’ Who knew that the opposition (just like our own Ryan Howard) were fast ball hitters.

        • cliff henny

          was graham a ‘fastball’ or ‘high motor’ guy? or was he the ever elusive combo.

          • JofreyRice

            Yep, IMO, that’s part of the reason why he got injured. With the motor situated so high and Graham being an undersized fastball, he was bound to be off-balance, and eventually tip over. Thank goodness he wasn’t a downhill linebacker playing inside a phonebooth at the time, or the injury might have been a career-ender.

      • Scott J

        Undersized, high-motor. I’m surprised he wasn’t coming off an ACL tear. It would have been a Reid trifecta.

    • DutchEagle

      Kind of wishful thinking, but I can see Graham develop into the next James Harrison. They are pretty similar posture-wise.

  • David D.

    Nice work again Sheil.

    On an unrelated note, can you take a stand among your sports reporter colleagues and retire the phrase “skill set”? Wouldn’t “skills” suffice?

    • nicksaenz1

      Sheil has a very particular set of skills, skills he has acquired over a very long career.

  • PaoliBulldog

    Sack numbers are sexy and easy to digest, but a linebacker can be quite effective even if he doesn’t rack up TFL’s. Barwin looks like a great fit and at a decent cap figure.

  • Myke Lowery

    Good thing he batted down that pass. that wr screen would have hit for big yards with the rt and rg releasing to pickup those last two defenders.

  • Adam

    Not too worried about Barwin getting back to 11.5 sacks. Realistically I’d like to see about 25 from our OLBs. Graham with 10-15, Barwin with 6-8, with Cole pitching in for another 4-6. Cox should build off his extremely impressive 5.5 last year. Our secondary should also contribute a few if Davis is true to his word about sending pressure from anywhere and everywhere. I honesty have a hard time remembering the last time we blitz more than our down linemen regularly. Was it McDermott or JJ?

    • Dutch

      5 sacks for a tackle in any league is exceptional, especially given Cox a rookie didn’t play 16 games and Started less than he actually played in last season. Barwin isn’t beating Tackles in the NFC East for 8 sacks that’s out of the question. There are more than enough Tight Ends to keep Barwin busy earning his keep in the NFC East. His keep will be shown in the production of opposing Tight Ends the Eagles fact week to week.

      Cole is a beast, and frankly unappreciated in Phila, standing up or playing with one hand in the dirt if he’s tasked with hunting the QB he’s going to deliver 9 to 11 sacks. Graham is the wildcard. Graham could register 17 or 7 depends on how he’s played in his defense.

      Players like Cole and Graham it doesn’t matter the scheme, they’re going to find a way to make things happen on the gridiron if they’re tasked with hunting Quarterbacks and playing the run on the way to destroying the pocket.

      • Adam

        Cole is coming off a less than stellar season so I’m not about to pencil him in for a ton of sacks, especially considering the scheme and position change. I hope I’m wrong, but I need to see him do it first.

        I have serious doubts Graham can beat LT’s. I think he has to be rushing RT’s as a 4-3 LDE, which is why I’m extremely worried they have him lined up at SAM right now.

        • Dutch

          Well if Graham and Cole are played out of position than that would signal Kelly isn’t playing to the personnel he has.

          Kelly would be following a rigid preconceived format.

          Most Defensive Coordinators position their best pass rushers on the opponent weakest pass protectors. It’s this reason Herremans is whipped for hurries, hits and sacks.

          Rarely will you see the opponents best pass rushers facing off against the left tackle, and in the Eagles case against Jason Peters.

          Graham is a special talent, he never gives up even when he’s engaged. Graham would be exceptional playing one of the inside linebacker positions in a 3-4 in my opinion. Graham behind Cox would be devastating and shut down completely any rushing between the tackles. The only concern I have is how he plays with trash surrounding his feet. I could see him playing downhill collapsing the gaps. I could also envision Curry being effective there as well. The Eagles could duplicate the same violent confrontations that the Steelers got from Harrisson except from the inside.

          • Adam

            Kelly will not be making these decisions, Davis will.

            Of course he will be moving guys around to create match ups, but if you are constantly lining up your best pass rusher against their weakest blocker, this means you are effectively neutralizing your other not as a good pass rusher by putting him against their top blocker.

            At some point you have to ask your best rusher to beat their best blocker.

            In our case, it wouldn’t be Cole or Graham I move around to create the best match ups, it would be Cox.

  • Ebrano

    With defense, we shouldn’t get carried away with stats… after a game or two, we all be able to tell if Barwin is a player or another Sims

  • Scott J

    I think Barwin, like most of the free agents we signed, are just stop gap players. They’ll all be replaced in the next few years with younger, drafted players.

  • ClydeSide

    Nice work. Very illuminating. Thanks.