Billy Davis is hoping to build a mirrored defense, where one player can seamlessly take on the role of his counterpart in the name of disguise and scheme flexibility. The outside linebacker posts were hardly a reflection of one another in 2013, however.
Connor Barwin was the only player on the roster with any professional experience as an outside linebacker in a 3-4. He played opposite Trent Cole and to a lesser extent Brandon Graham, two veterans who were learning a brand new position and therefor had far less responsibilities in coverage. Cole and Graham played the “Predator” role, where rushing the passer is the main focus. Barwin was the “Jack” (as in “Jack of all trades”) and wore a number of hats as the name suggests.
Cole dropped 22 percent of the time, which is right near the average for 3-4 linebackers that played a significant number of the snaps last season. Graham was at 21 percent. Barwin, meanwhile, dropped into coverage 42 percent, according to Pro Football Focus -- one of the highest rates in the league.
Barwin ended with five sacks on the season. That's well shy of his career-high 11.5 sacks in 2011 when he was with Houston. He also had 152 more stabs at rushing the QB that season, as he was asked to drop just 13 percent of the time. While extra attempts don't guarantee increased production (Barwin had more pass rush attempts in '12 than the year prior yet produced just three sacks, for instance), but your chances obviously go up.
Now that Cole and Graham have a year at outside linebacker under their belt, will Barwin be freed up to attack the passer more this season?
"Absolutely," said OLB coach Bill McGovern. "I think that's where you hope to see the whole thing start to come a little bit more together...I could put Connor over at Predator, I think I could put BG and Trent over at Jack and they would know what to do. We gave them names, but really it's a left outside linebacker and a right outside linebacker. That's what they really are and they can switch it up. Now, when they can start doing the same things all the time and you can bring either one, I think that's where the whole defense comes together."
There is still a ways to go. Cole and Graham might be more more comfortable but they still come with limitations in the coverage game. The hope is that Marcus Smith can be that versatile 'backer this system craves, though it's unknown how much he'll be able to contribute as a rookie.
“Marcus has shown to do it in college," said Davis, when asked who else on the roster can do the kind of things Barwin can do at the outside linebacker spot. "That’s one of the biggest things that attracted us to Marcus. The defense he ran at Louisville is very, very similar… Charlie Strong ran very similar to what we asked him to do here. So that was why it made such a nice fit for us."
Chances are the duties will remain uneven at outside linebacker for this upcoming campaign and Barwin will drop a little more than is ideal. But the addition of the rookie and the development of the vets should give him more opportunities to rush the passer this season.
"I think it’ll be a mix," said Davis. "I think he wears those roles because he can. And he plays well with doing that. But I can also take some of those roles off of him at times. The development of everybody kind of fits into that."
WHAT YOU MISSED
Josh checks in on the rest of the division in the NFC East Roundup.
"Unfortunately, this year Foles takes a step back." Some national links courtesy of Mr. Kapadia.
The latest on Lane Johnson in our Fourth of July mailbag.
WHAT THEY'RE SAYING
Tommy Lawlor offers some thoughts on Fletcher Cox.
Cox is a really gifted athlete who can still be a special player. One thing that will help him is continuity. He played in one system in 2011 (college), another in 2012 as a rookie and a completely new one in 2013. This is the first time in a while he’s had the same coaches and the same system. That should help Cox to hone his technique and become better from a technical standpoint. He has all the natural ability in the world.
If the coaches can get Cox to marry up his natural ability and his technical skills, he could become a dominant DL. That doesn’t mean it will happen right away, if at all. You have to be patient with players who are in the 2-gap 3-4. It just isn’t natural to read plays. Big guys want to fly off the ball and attack. It takes time for them to really build up 2-gap skills.
Geoff Mosher sees an increased role for Chris Polk this year.
Also, McCoy carried the ball an NFL-most 314 times last year because Chip Kelly likes to run and also because quarterback uncertainty for much of the season forced the coach to rely heavily on his most stable and consistent weapon. This year, with Nick Foles entrenched as the starter and with almost the entire offense back, I’d expect Kelly to open the playbook a little more and try to lessen the wear and tear on McCoy.
It wouldn’t shock me if Polk averaged between six to eight touches per game this coming season. For a guy with 11 NFL carries, that’s a hefty increase.
Eighteen days until training camp.