If the Eagles are looking for a leader on defense, or at least one to assist linebacker DeMeco Ryans, Connor Barwin may be as good a candidate as any starter.

Barwin, 26, could even have a more prominent leadership role than Ryans because the outside linebacker is likely to play all three downs. Ryans could come off the field in the nickel defense, and it's difficult to lead from the sideline.

As stable as Ryans can be, he could not right the Eagles' sinking ship last season. Barwin, acquired as a free agent in the offseason, said that he isn't looking to rock Ryans' boat.

"I know DeMeco's a leader," said Barwin, who was Ryans' teammate in Houston for three seasons. "It was his first year [with the Eagles] last year, and I've talked to him. I wasn't here last year, so I don't know what happened, but I heard it got pretty ugly at times. I think everybody that's still here was ready to move on from that."

There are only a few pieces left over from last season's debacle of a defense. And of those that remain, the 28-year-old Ryans has the most experience on the field and as a leader. There is a void, and Barwin seems to be the most willing of the Eagles' many free-agent additions to fill it.

"I'm getting older. It's my time," said Barwin, who is entering his fifth season in the NFL. "I'm comfortable with myself and how I go about things. I have no problem helping young guys, and there are obviously a lot of young guys on this defense that are looking for an example of how to be a pro."

Since the Eagles signed the 6-foot-4, 264-pound Barwin to a six-year, $36.6 million contract in March, he has been a staple at the NovaCare Complex.

"He just automatically fit in, and I think the first thing you do is lead by example," coach Chip Kelly said. "One of our best guys in the weight room, one of those guys that's here every day watching film. He's another gym-rat type of guy. I want to have a lot of those guys around here. It makes our job easier."

Barwin also has aided with the Eagles' transition from a 4-3 to a 3-4 defensive scheme. Because he went through a similar conversion with the Texans two years ago, Barwin said he has been able to help sell players, particularly the defensive ends who are converting to outside linebackers, on the idea.

Naturally, he is ahead of Trent Cole, Brandon Graham, and others who hardly dropped into coverage in a 4-3. That skill set, plus his abilities as a pass rusher - he recorded 111/2 sacks in 2011 - make him the most obvious choice to stay on the field when the Eagles go with five or even six defensive backs.

"Obviously, you want guys that can rush a passer, set an edge, and drop into coverage, and he can do all three," Kelly said. "That makes him a little bit more versatile in terms of us being able to put him in different spots out there."

Barwin said that a fair amount of Bill Davis' scheme involves playing defense in ways he hasn't played since he was in a 4-3. The defensive coordinator is still trying to find a happy medium between even- and odd-man fronts based on personnel.

Barwin, for instance, has been responsible for both gaps in the running game when he is up against the tight end. The outside linebackers also are playing left and right as opposed to strong-side (over the tight end) and weak-side in the base defense.

And in the nickel defense, Barwin said, he's "all over the place."

"You're asked as a player to do a lot of different things, which can be challenging," Barwin said, "but at the same time, that's going to be really hard for offenses to figure out what we're doing."

After recording double-digit sacks two seasons ago, Barwin had only three last season. The Eagles said in March that the decline had something to do with Barwin's being asked to drop into coverage more frequently.

But according to ProFootballFocus.com, Barwin dropped back only marginally more in 2012 (13.6 percent of pass plays) than he did in 2011 (12.8 percent).

Barwin appears to be enjoying the change of scenery. The Michigan native has stood out at training camp, often bouncing from one drill to another and playfully engaging with teammates.

"I try to enjoy it as much as I can," Barwin said. "Some days, you have your bad days and you don't have a good practice. But when you are, you try to have fun and it helps everybody else."

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