The ability was there, ripe to be developed. Connor Barwin was an unpolished NFL draft prospect in 2009. Now he's a Pro Bowl player, a second-team All-Pro linebacker, and the line he's taken to stardom has been an interesting one to watch, a case study in diligence, adaptability and patience.
Reggie Herring was a linebackers coach with the Dallas Cowboys at the time, and he carved together a handsome scouting report on Barwin.
"I thought he was a tremendous jewel as far as an outside linebacker goes," said Herring, a coach for 34 years with nine years in the NFL, including the 2014 season with Chicago. "I thought he was talented and he had the DNA to play hard and to play fast and to get to the football. Every coach wants a chance to get a player who is raw and talented and who has that size and lengthy and ability, PLUS the want to be a great player. To get him at scratch, without a lot of bad habits, that's what Houston got in Connor coming out of the draft. To have a chance to coach him a few years later, when I joined the Texans, was very exciting for me."
The NFL.com scouting report on Barwin turned out to be, as we see him six seasons later, pretty darn accurate.
"Positives: Tall with a well-developed upper body. Physical at the point of attack. Can get under the offensive tackle's pads and push him into the quarterback. Has effective stutter and spin moves. Relentless as a pass rusher, he also hustles down the line and chases ballcarriers downfield. Good backfield awareness to knock down passes and keep contain on reverses, run plays and bootlegs. Uses his hands well to keep blockers away and shed to make tackles. Stands up on some plays -- may fit as a 3-4 rush linebacker. Very coachable because of his intelligence, work ethic and motor. A special teams ace since his freshman year; he blocked three punts in 2008. Played power forward for the Bearcats' basketball team for two seasons as a walk-on.
"Negatives: A bit tight in the hips, is not smooth changing direction or handling coverage in the flat. Is not a quick-twitch athlete. Although he showed some explosiveness and suddenness off the edge, NFL tackles will be more difficult to beat. Inexperienced on defense, played only one season; must continue working on his pass-rushing techniques.
"Compares To (Defense): MATT ROTH, Miami -- Like Roth, Barwin plays with a non-stop motor. Right now, he makes plays on instincts alone, but you can see with each passing week that he is developing a good feel for the game. Still, with his speed and edge rushing skills, he could be a nice fit in a 3-4 alignment as a strongside linebacker."
Barwin was a second-round draft pick of Houston in 2009 and played for two seasons as a defensive end. In his rookie year, Barwin led all rookie ends with 4 ½ quarterback sacks. Houston played a 4-3 front and Barwin's burst off the edge allowed him to earn some playing time in his first season.
The 2010 experience wasn't quite as successful. A dislocated ankle in the opening game ended Barwin's season. And then the defense was revamped heading into 2011 and that's when Herring, the outside linebackers coach, and Barwin started their collaboration.
"He's somewhat of a coach's dream as far as the opportunity to coach an individual who is extremely dedicated, committed to the game, a tremendous pro football player as far as etiquette, accountability on the field and off the field, work habits, taking care of his body," Herring said. "Connor truly works to get better every day. He has a great attitude about the profession. He wants to learn and he has the kind of personality that every coach wants to work with.
"He always had an exceptional what I call 'linebacker toolbox.' He's long, athletic, can run and he has a great attitude as far as giving an all-out effort on every play. Truly a tremendous football player in every phase of the game.
"He was a 4-3 defensive end when we first started working together. I saw in him the great fundamentals, the body, the athletic skills and the willingness to learn a new position. One of the things you see in today's NFL are players with bad fundamentals – hand usage, pad levels, all kinds of things like that – and at the end of the day you get what you demand of yourself. Connor has always been very demanding of himself. That's how he was raised. It's a matter of 'Do you want to be real good at what you do?' The player has to buy in to what the coaches are teaching. There are players who think they can slop their way through it and become great players, and it doesn't work that way. You have to be persistent, consistent and you have be driven to want to excel in this game and buckle down and do the little things. There are no shortcuts."
Barwin registered 11 ½ sacks in 2011 working with Herring on the "open" side of the defensive formation. His pass-rushing skills were outstanding and he set the edge against the run and he was such an all-around player that the Texans moved him to the strong side in 2012 and the responsibilities included dropping into coverage more than rushing the quarterback. The numbers weren't the same – Barwin had more total tackles, but only 3 quarterback sacks – and after some disagreement among the Texans coaches and the front office, Barwin was allowed to test free agency.
The Eagles gobbled him up very quickly and Barwin has been, as he was with Herring in Houston, a complete player.
In 2013, Barwin impacted the pass rush (5 quarterback sacks), had 10 passes knocked down and registered 82 total tackles. He was outstanding, even if the numbers were somewhat muted in the first year of the new defense. 2014 was a breakthrough. The world noticed Barwin with his 14 ½ sacks, his great play against the run and the way Barwin covered in the passing game.
Total player. Total standout.
Six years in, Barwin is known in the league as a premier player, something his coaches knew long ago.
"He does everything well. He sets the edge for us. He rushes the passer and he drops back into coverage. He's an unselfish player, completely," said Eagles outside linebackers coach Bill McGovern. "Connor's success getting to the quarterback is part of the overall improvement within our defense. The coverage on the back end has improved and everyone on the front is in sync and we're getting home more. That has always been part of Connor's game. We haven't changed our defense and asked to him go rush the passer more. It's just that every part of the defense is meshing and we have that little bit of extra time to get to the quarterback.
"Connor has such great football intelligence and when you combine that IQ with his length, it just makes us a better football team. Sometimes we can get him on matchups that we think will benefit us. He studies so hard and he's so prepared and so when it gets to game day Connor plays within the scheme and he's very productive."