As I've learned more about Connor Barwin over the past few months, it's become obvious that he's a special athlete and person who shouldn't be available by the end of the first round of this year's NFL Draft. And it appears that quite a few NFL teams are realizing that, too.
After spending his first three seasons at the University of Cincinnati playing tight end, Barwin had established himself as a reliable performer who was poised for a strong finish to his collegiate career.
Then came the surprise.
Prior to the start of Barwin's senior year, Bearcats head coach Brian Kelly asked him to switch to defensive end, taking advantage of the Michigan native's athleticism to bolster the team's defense. The request to switch to the other side of the ball wasn't unusual since Barwin had earned Defensive MVP honors at the University of Detroit Jesuit High School while playing defensive end. It was the timing that was unusual.
With NFL aspirations on the line, a switch that late in Barwin's college career could have been devastating.
"We were a little bit surprised when he he advised us of the conversation that he and Coach Kelly had, but we got over it pretty quick," his father, Tom Barwin said. "He's always been a team-oriented kind of guy. He knows his body, he's always made good decisions, and he knows his ability. So I was confident that he would do well."
And did he ever.
Connor Barwin ended up terrorizing quarterbacks, notching a Big-East leading 11 sacks by the end of the season. He also logged 53 tackles, 16 tackles for a loss, and eight passes defensed.
"I really love the competition that comes with playing defensive end, because in a small way it's just you against the guy who's trying to block you. And I don't ever want to get blocked," Barwin said during an interview with Scout.com at the Senior Bowl in January.
The versatile Bearcat impressed the coaches and scouts all week in Mobile at the all-star affair, showcasing his skills by taking snaps at both defensive end and at tight end.
Then it was on to the NFL Scouting Combines, where players shift their focus from competing head-to-head to putting their athleticism and personality on display in front of NFL coaches and general managers. Barwin set the tone for his presence in Indianapolis early when he told the media point-blank, and without a hint of arrogance, that he thought that he was going to perform well because he believed that he was one of the best athletes in this year's draft class.
B. Hansbauer/UC Sports Communications
"I don't know too many guys who can compare their value to what I do," he explained. "I think that right away, no matter what situation I'm in, I'm going to contribute on special teams, which I hear from every single NFL team is a concern [for them]. I know a lot of guys who are here and who have been great in college didn't play special teams. But I've already played them throughout my whole career."
The 6-foot-4, 256-pound player was right. He had blocked four kicks during his college career and was a key contributor to the Bearcats' success on special teams. He had the versatility and skill set to play on offense or defense. There was no other player at the Combine with the demonstrated level of success in all three phases of the game that Barwin could point to on his resume.
The former Bearcats star then backed up his talk, finishing first among the defensive linemen in the vertical jump, three-cone drill and the 20-yard shuttle. He tied for first in the broad jump and finished second in the 40-yard dash. His bench press was the only event where he lagged behind the pack with 21 reps.
Each evening, Barwin sat down with more than a dozen teams for 15-minute formal interviews. He watched some film, did some board work and answered questions. However, unlike most players these days, the 22-year-old player wasn't coached on how to handle the interviews and didn't rehearse any answers.
"I think coaches, player personnel and GMs don't want to hear that kind of stuff," Barwin said. "I think, whether they like exactly what I said or not, I think they appreciated that I was being real in those interviews and didn't have my planned answers beforehand."
Barwin's agent, Scott Smith of XAM Sports, knew that letting Connor Barwin be exactly who he was in front of NFL talent evaluators was in his client's best interest.
"Aside from his incredible athletic ability and his competitiveness on the field, he's a very intriguing person off the field," he said. "He's just an amazing young man in terms of his maturity level, his wisdom about the game of football, about life in general, and about the importance of family. He also realizes the importance of relationships, the importance of being upfront and candid with people. You don't have to sit down and talk to him for more than a few minutes to understand this is a guy who will tell it like it is. He'll put it out there for you, and I think that only helps him state his case in terms of him getting a job in the NFL."
The Tipping Point
Connor Barwin certainly had the attention of NFL talent evaluators, some of whom were speculating that he'd be a high pick in the second round of the draft.
He then surprised everyone at his Pro Day when he ran his 40-yard dash again, even though he finished second in the event at the Combine. His reason for doing it over gives you a glimpse into the mind of Connor Barwin.
"Well, it's clear why," he said with a laugh. "I thought that I could run faster. The two things that I didn't get first in—the 40-yard dash and the bench press—I felt like I could have. After the Combine, I went back to Cincinnati to train just like I did for the Combine. And then I was fresh for Pro Day and I knew I was going to post-up a better time."
While he improved his bench press to 23 reps, it wasn't as high of a total as he had hoped to achieve. But what he did next was what made his Pro Day a memorable event for everyone in attendance.
Barwin participated in defensive line position drills as well as linebacker drills since some teams see him as an outside linebacker in their 3-4 defensive scheme. While other players looked winded from their workout with a single position group, Barwin progressed through a total of four different position drills, working out with the offensive linemen to showcase his blocking technique as a tight end, and running routes with the receivers and tight ends to put his pass-catching ability on display.
Barwin deflects a pass against South Florida that resulted in an interception for his team.
AP Photo/David Kohl
It was a site rarely—if ever—seen at a Pro Day workout by a draft prospect.
In addition to plenty of teams that were scouting him as a defensive end or linebacker, tight ends coaches such as the New York Giants' Mike Pope and Jacksonville's Mike Tice were checking him out as a tight end candidate.
"I think as teams are getting to know more about me through this whole process, the tight end position has just become more of an interest," Barwin explained. "I was a good tight end my first three years, and I probably would've been a lot better of one my fourth year. So these guys who are doing all the scouting, they're finding out everything about me, and the more they find out, the more they realize I have the potential to be one of the best athletes in this draft."
Without a doubt, teams are noticing that Barwin could easily free up a roster spot by designating him for a primary position on one side of the ball, and as a reserve on the other side.
"I think almost every team that saw me as a defensive player months ago is now intrigued by my ability to be a red-zone tight end or a tight end in a pinch," he said. "But I also think that teams that don't have needs for their defensive line, like the Giants, now primarily see me as a tight end. And then maybe, should something happen, I could be a guy who goes over there to rush the passer in certain situations."
Barwin's agent agrees.
"I don't think the NFL as a whole has encountered a guy who is at the top of their list at multiple positions on both sides of the ball," Smith said. "But I'm not surprised by Connor's ability to do that, because he has the ability do anything in the NFL. But it's unique to say the least."
You Could See It Coming
Tom Barwin and his wife, Peggy Bailey, had four sons in the span of five years, with Connor being the last to join the family.
"From the get go, he had to be real quick to get that last piece of pie off the dinner table," Tom said with a laugh.
All of the Barwin boys have gone on to get their degrees at colleges across the country, from Michigan State to New York's Fordham, to Chicago's Loyola and the University of Cincinnati.
"We're very proud of all of them," Tom said as he started to provide a glimpse into the family's life together over the past 25 years.
"Just before he was born, I moved from police work to city management. I was a police officer right out of college in the metro Detroit area, just north of Detroit," he recalled. "Connor spent his first six to eight years in a little town in Michigan called St. Charles. It was wonderful. It was kind of a small town in a rural community.
"My wife ran a daycare center, so Connor was always around a lot of kids. My wife has always been active in our communities. She's typically the one you'll find running the church festival for a week in the summer or volunteering for bingo night. But now, she's also a freelance web designer, and she's very good at it."
It was after Tom Barwin built a basketball court in the family's yard that Tom and Peggy first noticed Connor's propensity to be attracted to sports.
Barwin stretches during pregame warm-ups at the Senior Bowl.
Ronald Martinez/Getty Images
"He would be out there bouncing the ball well after dark, even at that young age," Tom said.
Eventually, when Connor was about eight years old, the family moved to Hazel Park, a city just north of Detroit. Connor began playing Little League football and got involved in practically any sport that he could fit into his schedule.
"Even in upper-elementary, he liked to play basketball in the city of Detroit with some inner-city kids. I would take him into the city three nights a week during the off-season and sometimes even after his regular basketball practice during basketball season," Tom said. "It was very intense, and he saw how some of the best players at young ages were playing."
Determined to be as good as the young athletes he was shooting hoops with during the week, Barwin learned about strength shoes—a frontal platform shoe that forces you to run on your toes to help you develop your calf muscles.
"He pleaded with us to get him some strength shoes, and once he got them, he read the training program went down to the park at the corner two or three days a week." Tom said. "He would go down there and run the drills that would help his leaping ability and his ability to compete with all the kids in the city. He just always kept working at whatever he had to do to rise and to be able to compete."
While some parents push their children relentlessly to be successful in sports, that wasn't the case at all for the Barwin family. It was Connor who did the bulk of the pushing.
"It's his work ethic. He used to drag my butt out of bed at six in the morning during basketball season in junior high and high school to go rebound for him while he practiced free throws before school at the local gym," Tom said. "He felt he had to shoot a hundred or 200 free throws before school just because he was a little sub-par in the free-throw department.
"And the same with football, he knew that to compete he needed to get a little stronger. So he hit the weight room, before school, two or three days a week in high school."
At times, Connor Barwin's dedication to his craft has even befuddled his family.
"I don't know where it comes from, but Connor gets joy out of s ports, athletics and competition," Tom said. "Those who take this journey that we're taking through life, who find what their passion is, are the luckiest among us. They're also typically very good at what they do whether it's a musician, writer or an athlete. And Connor's really doing something he loves to do."
The Home Stretch
With less than a month remaining until NFL Draft weekend, Connor Barwin is preparing for a rigorous schedule of official team visits. He's already completed a visit with the Buffalo Bills and individual workouts for the Seattle Seahawks, Denver Broncos, Miami Dolphins, and the New England Patriots. He'll work out one more time on April 14 at the Bengals' local Pro Day for area draft prospects.
April will be a time of living out of a suitcase, visiting team facilities and meeting coaches in NFL cities. He's already been scheduled for visits with the Patriots, Dolphins, the Tennessee Titans, Kansas City Chiefs and the St. Louis Rams.
Ever since his amazing Pro Day performance that put a big, shiny bow on his package of off-season talent demonstrations, the talk by teams of being able to snag Barwin off the board in the early part of the second round has become more of a question than a statement. They're realizing that he's a first-round talent who's not likely to fall under the radar and drift into the second round anymore.
Ronald Martinez/Getty Images
"It's all very exciting, that's for sure. But I also understand that things change," Barwin said. "The draft process is so crazy, and there are teams that are telling me that they really like me and have me high on their draft board. But I understand that they are just one voice in a room full of a lot of voices on draft day."
Scott Smith shares his client's excitement about the ride that they've been on together over the last few months.
"It's been a remarkable journey to be able to work with Connor," he said. "I guess at the end of the day, I have to look at this and say that this is just a kid who is a sheer competitor, and he's going to compete at every opportunity presented before him. And that's exciting, because that doesn't stop after his Pro Day or after a workout—that's something he'll continue to exhibit throughout his entire career and his entire life.
"That's what makes him such an exciting guy to work with, to just witness someone who is an extreme competitor who's going to go out there and put it all on the table, all the time, seven days a week. It's been great."
In less than a month, everyone connected with Connor Barwin's NFL journey will learn where his next stop will be when a team representative walks a card up to the podium in Radio City Music Hall with the talented player's name on it.
So does Connor or anyone else in the family have a preference about where he'll play?
"Connor will say, 'I want to play wherever I can play the most'. His mother will say, 'I want him to play wherever is the closest to me so I can go see him play as often as possible'," Tom Barwin said. "But I think what all of us are really hoping for is that he plays for a good organization that is going to be competitive, will have a shot to be in the playoffs and the Super Bowl—an organization that's got some good veterans who are willing to put a young player under their wings to mentor.
"It's not all about money with Connor at all. It's about the joy of competing and having fun and being a part of a team, and hopefully being a part of a community. That's always been part of our world as a family. I think he's quietly hoping that's how it goes, but in the end, he'll be happy to just be on the field in the fall and doing everything he can to contribute to his team's success."
A member of the Pro Football Writers of America, Ed Thompson's player interviews and NFL features are published across the Scout.com network and at FOXSports.com. You can follow him on Twitter or Facebook. Or contact him by email through this link.