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McLane: Barwin 'too smart' for Birds defense?

If individual defensive players were part of fantasy football Connor Barwin from 2013-15 would have been a steal. He could fill up stat sheet. In those three seasons, Barwin averaged 81 tackles, nine sacks, 13 tackles for losses, 18 hurries, five passes defensed and two forced fumbles.

If individual defensive players were part of fantasy football Connor Barwin from 2013-15 would have been a steal.

He could fill up stat sheet. In those three seasons, Barwin averaged 81 tackles, nine sacks, 13 tackles for losses, 18 hurries, five passes defensed and two forced fumbles.

While numbers aren't always a reflection of a player's worth, Barwin's box score mirrored his versatility on the field. A lot of his production had to do with scheme. Bill Davis' 3-4 defense was seemingly the ideal instrument for Barwin's skills.

But the Eagles returned to a 4-3 scheme this offseason, an aggressive system that has defensive linemen penetrating through gaps rather than reading and reacting. Barwin said then that he wasn't worried about the transition. He had played in a similar defense in his first two seasons in the NFL.

After 13 games, though, Barwin is strumming a different tune.

"I think it was a bigger adjustment than I thought it would be, not only moving back to a 4-3, but moving to the right side," Barwin said Thursday. "And so, it's been obviously a pretty disappointing season.

"But I'm pretty encouraged about what I've learned even as the season has gone on and how much I can be and we can be next year."

Will there be a next year for Barwin, one of the Eagles' leaders? The 30-year-old has a salary-cap number of $8.35 million in 2017, and only $600,000 of that is guaranteed. The Eagles could release him and save $7.75 million.

"As somebody who has been in the league long enough, I know there are no guarantees," Barwin said. "But I'm very optimistic and hopeful that I will be here next year."

If the Eagles plan on retaining Barwin, it likely won't be at the current rate. They would want to lower his salary, something he could be open to. But he could have better options elsewhere, particularly if he was able to return to a two-gap, 3-4 defense.

Barwin had three primary responsibilities as a 3-4 outside linebacker - setting the edge against the run, rushing the passer from the left, and dropping into coverage. He had the athleticism to perform all three disciplines at a high level, but many of his game-changing moments came from diagnosing plays before they happened.

He would detect the direction of a run and beat a blocker to the running back, or he would read the quarterback's eyes and bat down a pass, or he would bait and wait before cleaning up for a sack. As a defensive end in Jim Schwartz's defense, Barwin is mostly asked to go, go, and go.

"He's too smart for that defense," an NFL personnel director said. "That's a defense for . . . linemen that can just pin their ears back and not think. He's neither athletic nor strong enough to consistently win battles against the best left tackles."

Barwin agreed that the scheme has taken away some of his more subtle attributes. And for whatever reason, Schwartz has had him rush from the right and Brandon Graham from the left. Barwin has had to face some of the best tackles in the league - the Redskins Trent Williams (twice), the Cowboys' Tyron Smith, and the Bengals' Andrew Whitworth, to name a few.

"I've faced the best linemen every week except for like an outlier," Barwin said. "It's tough. It's a big difference. It's been frustrating at times, but it's something that I really need to work on, turning that edge on that side."

Barwin's numbers have dipped considerably. He has 32 tackles, four sacks, three tackles for losses, 10 hurries, two passes defensed and one forced fumble. Every returning defensive lineman's statistics have decreased, save for Graham's.

The Eagles notched 20 sacks in their first six games but have only eight in their last seven.

"As Chip Kelly's favorite saying was, 'Live your life in vision, not in circumstance, but . . .' " Barwin said. "Circumstance is real. You look at the beginning of the season and we played the Browns, the Bears, the Steelers, who don't have a great offensive line."

To switch things up - or to start the process of looking at younger players - Schwartz activated Steven Means on Sunday against the Redskins. That meant less snaps for Barwin.

"Connor has been a consistent player for a long time in the NFL," Schwartz said. "I do think that the fresher we can keep him, the better chance he has to be productive. Hopefully this can help that."

More Means also meant less Vinny Curry (11/2 sacks), who has been maybe the Eagles' biggest disappointment. But all of his 2017 salary is guaranteed. It would be difficult to trade Curry. Of course, the Eagles were able to move Byron Maxwell and DeMarco Murray last offseason.

Otherwise, Curry would appear to be blocking a possible Barwin return.

Small world

When a new player joins a team, there are almost always one or two teammates he may have crossed paths with in the NFL, college, or high school. It isn't very often, though, that he shares a locker room with someone he grew up with on the same street.

Dwayne Gratz and Malcolm Jenkins not only lived on the same street in Piscataway, N.J., but their childhood houses were directly across from each other. Gratz, who signed with the Eagles on Monday, said it was Jenkins' father, Lee, who first suggested he try organized football.

There was a plot of land next to the Jenkins' home where the kids in the neighborhood would play pickup football. Jenkins said his father often played quarterback and one day he noticed Gratz, who was about three years younger than Malcolm, making plays.

"His dad was a very good guy," Gratz said. "He cared not only about his children, but the other children on the block. I'm sure I'm not the only one he helped out in terms of playing football."

Jenkins said there were four players of relatively the same age who grew up within a three-mile radius who went on to make the NFL. Former 49ers tackle Anthony Davis and Lions running back Steven Miller were the other two.

The Jaguars drafted Gratz, who played for Connecticut, in the third round of the 2013 draft. He started 25 games in his first three seasons before he was released in October. The Rams picked him up, but he lasted only three games before he was waived again.

"We were losing - that's what happened," Gratz said when asked to explain why his tenure in Jacksonville ended. "It's always tough being in that type of situation, being on a losing team for four years."

Gratz said he had a recent offer from the Browns, but he wanted to avoid another rebuilding situation. So when the Eagles called, he said he reached out to Jenkins to get an insider's view.

"He said it was looking really good in terms of the cornerback position," Gratz said. "And as far as the team goes, there's a lot of talent here and I think we have a chance."

Learning to fly

Dillon Gordon has been the only Eagles player on the 53-man roster to be inactive for all 13 games thus far, but that streak could end Sunday. With three starters listed on the injury report, Gordon could dress as the sixth or seventh offensive lineman.

The rookie has spent the last three months in relative anonymity, but it's not like he hasn't been busy. Gordon has been attending the Jason Peters School of transitioning from a college tight end to an NFL tackle.

"I call him my big brother because that's how he treats me," Gordon said Wednesday. "He's just trying to make sure that he's gives me all the knowledge he can while he's still playing."

Gordon, like Peters, was mostly a run-blocking tight end in college who went undrafted. But the Eagles, much like the Bills with Peters 13 years ago, saw a raw player who could be molded into a lineman.

They started Gordon off at guard, and when he started mauling defensive ends in one-on-one drills during training camp, the Eagles moved the 6-foot-4, 322-pound LSU product to left tackle. They typically don't take as many as 11 offensive linemen, but against long odds, Gordon made the team.

"I thought playing fullback was going to be my ticket onto the team," Gordon said.

Peters has taken Gordon under his wing and has helped him with pass protection - something the rookie did little of in college.

Five questions: Leodis McKelvin

1. What's the first position you played? Played cornerback, running back in Pop Warner.

2. Who was your football hero growing up? I liked Emmitt Smith. He was a running back and had my number - 22 - back in the day.

3. Who is the toughest opponent you ever faced? I've been guarding [former Lions wide receiver] Calvin Johnson ever since high school, so you could say that.

4. Who is the best teammate you ever had? [Former Bills and current Titans safety] George Wilson.

5. What's your least favorite piece of football equipment? I ain't wear a cup. Kids are required to wear cups now. So that's one thing I haven't ever worn in football. Still haven't. It's very rare when somebody could get hit down there, but it does happen.

Inside the game

Jalen Mills played slot cornerback almost exclusively on Sunday against the Redskins. It was the second time this season that Eagles defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz played Mills over safety Malcolm Jenkins against a smaller, shiftier wide receiver.

In both games, Mills kept the Cowboys' Cole Beasley and the Redskins' Jamison Crowder in check until a few late-moment breakdowns. Crowder caught a 33-yard pass against the cornerback that set up the winning touchdown.

"Jalen did some good things . . . but when it came time to make that play, we gave up that one in the fourth quarter," Schwartz said.

Nevertheless, could Mills' future be in the slot rather than on the outside?

"I'd rather play outside," Mills said, "but inside is something I'm definitely used to."

Mills started on the outside in college but moved to the slot when LSU went into nickel packages. Not many NFL cornerbacks can juggle both because the matchups are often different, as are the responsibilities.

"Eye discipline," Mills said when asked to explain the challenge of playing inside vs. out. "Inside, I'm really now kind of a linebacker and I have to be in a run fit if they do run the ball."

Inside the locker room

Rodney McLeod wore a shirt with the words "Misunderstood" emblazoned across the top on Thursday. Underneath was the Webster's definition of the word.

The Eagles safety said his choice of wardrobe had nothing to do with the criticism he faced last week when he appeared to be giving less than full effort on a Bengals touchdown run.

McLeod, who was absolved by defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz, joked that he should have worn it on the day when reporters first asked him about the play.

"It would have made more sense then," he said.

By the numbers

60 Number of plays over 20 yards the Eagles defense has allowed this season. Only the 49ers (63) have give up more in the NFL.

24 False-start penalties committed by the Eagles, which is tied for last with the Redskins (the Chiefs are next with 23). Jason Peters has an NFL-high eight false starts.

72 Total first downs by the Eagles' top two skill-position players (Jordan Matthews 37, Darren Sproles 35). Only the Lions have a top combo with fewer (Marvin Jones 35, Aquan Boldin 34).