COMMENTARY | Ask any Philadelphia Eagles fan how good the team's linebackers were prior to last year's acquisition of DeMeco Ryans from the Houston Texans, and you just might hear some words that aren't fit for print.
However, the Birds finally took a major step in the right direction by signing Ryans, a two-time Pro Bowl linebacker with the Texans who went on to lead the Eagles with a team-high 148 tackles in 2012.
Now the Birds have further bolstered their linebacker corps by dipping another toe into the Texans' talent pool. On March 14 they signed free agent Connor Barwin to a six-year contract worth up to $40 million with incentives.
The outside linebacker was the eighth player the Eagles signed over the first two days of free agency, but unlike some of those whose roles with the team are still to be determined, Barwin is going to be an immediate difference-maker on defense.
"This is a guy who plays with his hair on fire," Eagles GM Howie Roseman told the Philadelphia Daily News. "He has the characteristics we look for in a defensive player."
Compared to Ryans at 6'1" and 247 pounds, Barwin is an absolute beast who stands 6'4" and weighs 268 pounds. If that sounds like defensive end size, that's because Barwin used to play DE with the Texans. However, the former 2009 second-round draft pick truly came into his own when Houston switched to a 3-4 defense in 2011 - the very same change that sent Ryans to the Eagles.
While it remains to be seen how Ryans will fit into the Eagles new defensive scheme, Barwin should feel right at home. He is a talented pass rusher who has accumulated 19 sacks over four seasons in the NFL, although one of those seasons (2010) Barwin missed 15 games with a broken ankle. But he came back with a vengeance in 2011, notching 11.5 sacks, before dropping off to only three sacks in 2012.
Roseman told the Philadelphia Inquirer that he attributed the drop-off to how Barwin was being used.
"He was more on the open side two years ago," Roseman said. "He was more in position to set the edge and cover the tight end this year. We watched him two years ago on the open side, and then even this year when they played the Lions when he was doing it more. . . . We think we know what we're getting here in a high-motor guy."
Barwin also has plenty of experience dropping back into coverage, where his size and strength match up favorably against tight ends.
But the true beauty of the Barwin acquisition is that the Eagles are only on the hook for $8 million in guaranteed money, so in the off chance that Barwin doesn't pan out as expected, it won't break the bank. That seems unlikely to happen, however, as I expect Barwin to thrive under head coach Chip Kelly and defensive coordinator Billy Davis.
With Barwin and Ryans roaming the middle, pressuring quarterbacks and shoring up the run defense, the Eagles now have a formidable set of linebackers capable of striking fear in the hearts of opponents.
Gary Strassberg has been a journalist for more than 20 years. He has worked for the E.W. Scripps Company, The Nielsen Company, and other media outlets. Follow Gary on Twitter: @GaryStrassberg