The success rate in NFL's free agency is, as we know, spotty. Just as it is so inexact to project a young man from college into the grown-up world of The League, it is equally as difficult to take a player who has had success in one system and project his effectiveness in a variety of different circumstances – a new coaching staff, a changed locker room, living conditions that could be shockingly new, among others.
We've seen the Eagles as aggressive as any team attacking free agency over the years, with a reasonable percentage of signings that worked out extremely well and some that didn't quite pan out as hoped. One who made an immediate impact, who was every bit as the Eagles hoped he would be on and off the field, was linebacker Connor Barwin, who now heads into his second season in Philadelphia as a key member of the defense.
Barwin agreed to contract terms with the Eagles on the third day of free agency in 2013 after playing four seasons with the Houston Texans. His story, how he became an Eagle, is one that every team wishes it could tell regarding a free-agent signing.
"We get a list of potential free agents at the beginning of every season and start to go through each guy and put together a report on every player," said Eagles general manager Howie Roseman. "We knew that Connor had been productive in Houston, that he played in a 3-4 front and that he did a lot of good things. We had a report on him in October and then kept watching him, keeping tabs on him and updating the report."
That was just the start of the process, of course. The Eagles struggled in 2012 with a 4-12 record and then, as the season ended, changed the coaching staff. A thorough search ensued and then the Eagles hired Chip Kelly as the new head coach. As Kelly put his staff together, he brought in Bill Davis to oversee the defense, and Davis set about organizing his version of the 34 front, which requires linebackers who can both rush the quarterback as well as drop back into coverage in the passing game, along with setting the edge and playing physical football against the running game.
Barwin, as it turned out, was seen as a great fit.
"He was athletic, smart, had great character and for us it was just about him being the right fit," said Roseman. "We look for three things in an outside linebacker, and that is to rush the quarterback, set the edge and play in space. Connor had played both sides in Houston's defense and had been productive. We saw that Connor was used to rush the quarterback a lot in 2011 (11 ½ sacks) and then was asked to do a more workmanlike job in 2012 (3 sacks) when he set the edge and played in space.
"All of those traits and all of the leadership characteristics were attractive to us."
When free agency began, the Eagles jumped out quickly and contacted Barwin and his representatives. There was mutual interest. The Eagles were in the process of overhauling the defense and adding pieces to fit the 3-4 front. Barwin was a large component, and the contract part of things came into place for a win/win on both sides.
"I'm glad to be a Philadelphia Eagle. This is a team and a city with rich history and I'm excited to see what the possibilities are with Chip Kelly as the head coach," said Barwin upon signing his six-year contract. "I'm looking forward to building something special here."
Barwin's performance was just that in his first year in the defense. He was outstanding against the run, ranked second on the team with five quarterback sacks, and led the Eagles in passes deflected. Pro Football Focus determined that Barwin led all 3-4 linebackers with 7 batted passes.
Barwin fit perfectly into the culture of the Eagles, and of the city. He is the example of what works in free agency when the fit is absolutely right.
"On an off the field, what he represents for our football team in terms of leadership and ability and work ethic, Connor is one of those guys whose name on the back of his jersey is the right match for the name on the front of the jersey," said Roseman. "He wants to do anything it takes for the team to win, whether that's the dirty work that few see, or dropping into coverage and batting down balls, or finding a way into the backfield to make a big play, he does it. He's a huge part of our defense, even if sometimes he doesn't get the recognition he deserves. He's a huge part of our defense moving forward."