2013 In Review: Top 5 Transactions in Philadelphia Sports

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4. Eagles Sign free agent Connor Barwin

Mandatory Credit: Howard Smith-USA TODAY Sports

When it was announced that the Eagles had hired Chip Kelly, everyone marveled at the potential of the team’s offensive attack with one of the great offensive minds in the game entering the fold. Contrarily, there was a great deal of speculation as to what the team would do on defense. Coming off consecutive seasons where their defense, laden with big names, was defined by underperforming and lack of effort it was difficult to imagine the team could field a respectable unit in Kelly’s first year.

Personnel aside, there was also the question as to what type of defense the Eagles would employ under Kelly. After decades of the use of four down lineman and defensive ends defining the team’s success, the hiring of Billy Davis as defensive coordinator signified a shift from the style that had made players like Reggie White, Hugh Douglas, and even Trent Cole stars in the league.

Aside from the philosophical shift, the Eagles had a serious issue with the makeup of their defensive depth chart as far as translating to the 3-4 hybrid scheme that Davis utilized. Stemming back to the regular season, the organization had cut ties with toxic players in: Jason Babin, Nnamdi Asomugha, Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, among others. While the moves were well-received, it did not change the fact that the team was drastically depleted as far as able bodies to play on the defensive side of the ball.

In a series of cap-friendly, low-risk, low profile signings the Eagles pieced together their defense the best they could.  Jettisoned players such as Patrick Chung, Bradley Fletcher, Isaac Sopoaga, and Kenny Phillips highlighted this free agency approach. Still, the team had to try to acquire some talent that might make an impact in 2013 and beyond. Former Ravens cornerback Cary Williams was brought in on a three-year/$17 million deal with $10.5 million guaranteed to be the team’s number one cornerback.

The other high-profile addition addressed the most important position in Billy Davis’ defense. With a seeming lack of pass rushers with the ability to attack the quarterback from a standing position, the Eagles had to bring in a player with experience doing just that. The primary difference between the 4-3 and 3-4 schemes is the source of quarterback pressure and the role of the defensive line. Shifting away from depending on defensive ends rushing the passer from a three-point stance and the ‘wide nine’, the Eagles would need to alter the linebacking corps to give their defense a foundation to gradually shift into a consistent 3-4 team.

Tapping into the defending AFC South champions for the second linebacker in as many years (DeMeco Ryans), the Eagles signed free agent LB Connor Barwin to a six-year/$36 million contract with $8 million guaranteed. Barwin had gone from one of the most promising players on the Texans roster (11.5 sacks in 2011) to a luxury the apparently Super Bowl contending Texans could not afford to wait for (3 sacks in 2012). They decided not to bring Barwin back into the fold, and the Eagles were waiting with open arms with an extremely team-friendly deal to make Barwin their ‘predator’ linebacker.

The role of the predator in what is technically a 4-3 under scheme that primarily uses 3-4 philosophies is to rush the passer and cover in space. With the Eagles hanging on to players like Trent Cole, Brandon Graham, and Vinny Curry they were without any outside linebacker with experience playing in space like Barwin.

While the move did not generate the flare of some of the other signings around the NFL in the 2013 offseason, the signing of Barwin could go down as the best deal of any team in free agency. The 27-year old has rounded into arguably the team’s best overall defender. His supreme athleticism and multi-sports background  has made him an invaluable presence on the Eagles’ stunningly effective defense.

Perhaps even more impressive than Barwin’s statline: 57 tackles (43 solo), 5 sacks, a forced fumble and recovery, as well as an interception; is the demeanor and way he goes about his business. Much like several of the other players on Billy Davis’ defense, Barwin displays a quiet confidence that has solidified what was expected to be a historically bad unit. He has stepped up as one of the most visible members of the Eagles and in less than six months has proved to be as likable an athlete to grace the city as I can remember.

Whether it is the fact that his preferred travel around the city is riding Septa, or the fact that he exhibits the sort of gamesmanship that almost mirrors head coach Chip Kelly, Barwin has already turned into one of the city’s favorite personalities on and off the field. Should the Eagles beat the Cowboys on Sunday and wrap up the NFC East division title, Barwin will be as much a reason as any member of the offense and that, combined with him being the polar opposite of egos like Babin and Asomugha, the Eagles signing of him is good for fourth on top transactions in 2013.