Texans outside linebacker Connor Barwin is in the final year of his rookie contract, but his focus is all football as he works to build on a breakout 2011 season.
Barwin, who led the Texans' second-ranked defense with 11.5 sacks in 2011, is one of several key players on the team whose contracts expire after this season. Left tackle Duane Brown, quarterback Matt Schaub and strong safety Glover Quin are among the others.
"That's not on my mind at all," Barwin said last Friday, seven days into training camp. "My mind is completely focused on getting better at football and trying to have a good year, and that's the honest truth. I would love to have a contract, but I'm not thinking about that. My goal is to be here. If it happens now or doing the season, that would be good, but if we go through the season and do nothing, that's fine with me, too. We'll work it out after the season.
"I love my teammates, my coaches. I kind of made Houston my home, so hopefully this is where I stay."
A Detroit native and second-round draft pick out of Cincinnati in 2009, Barwin had 4.5 sacks as a rookie defensive end. He played in less than two quarters in 2010, breaking his ankle in the Texans' season opener against Indianapolis. He was moved to outside linebacker last season after defensive coordinator Wade Phillips joined the Texans and switched the defense from a 4-3 to a 3-4.
Barwin played on the strongside at the Sam position for the first five games. After Mario Williams suffered a season-ending injury in Week 5, Barwin moved to the weakside at Will, the premier pass-rushing position in Phillips' defense. From Week 9 through the end of the season, he tied for the NFL lead with 9.5 sacks, which included a four-sack effort at Jacksonville in Week 12.
Texans linebackers coach Reggie Herring thinks Barwin is "just now scratching the surface" of his potential at the Will position.
"We look at Connor as a rookie going in on his second year," Herring said. "He's just as new and young in this defense as Brooks Reed is. But what he brings is consistency. When you think of Connor Barwin, you think of consistency. Great effort – comes at you every play. Incredible work habits, great conditioning, loves the game. A quiet leader, so to speak, because he just goes out and plays.
"When you look at his production last year and total in about the four extra sacks that got called back because of penalties, you're looking at a possible 18-, 19-sack year, which does put you in the Pro Bowl. We're expecting great things out of him. He's healthy. He's full-stride right now. The way we finished the season, that's how we want to start this season and then build on it, and that's what we're expecting from him."
Barwin said he learned a new approach to rushing the passer from Phillips and Herring in 2011. He explained it as "you don't try to learn too much," with a focus on perfecting one or two pass-rushing moves and a counter move instead of trying to learn six or eight.
Entering his second year in Phillips' system, Barwin can feel himself settling into his still-new role at outside linebacker.
"I'm obviously every excited," he said. "This camp is a lot different because I know what I'm doing. It's funny to look back on where we were last year a week into training camp, we were still learning so many different things about how to rush the passer, how to play outside linebacker, how to even be in your stance. We're miles ahead of that now, but going into year two, this is still my second year playing this position. There's still so much to continue to work on and improve on."
Williams is now a member of the Buffalo Bills, leaving Barwin as the Texans' top returning pass rusher in 2012. He has new competition – and help – from rookie first-round draft pick Whitney Mercilus, his backup on the weakside. Barwin competed with Reed on the strongside in training camp last year.
Not content to rest on his laurels, Barwin stayed in Houston for most of the offseason and stuck to a dedicated workout schedule. He was a regular at Reliant Stadium during the Texans' off time in the spring and summer, voluntarily coming to work out on his own or with various teammates.
"I just want to be successful, man," Barwin said. "I just want to improve on what I did last year. They come in here and they draft Whitney, who's a good player. He's pushing me, too. Brooks pushed me all of last year. We've got a competitive locker room where I've realized you can't sit back and relax because other guys are going to pass you. That was kind of what drove me this offseason. But also, we got a taste of what it's like to win around here and how much fun it is, and we missed it by a couple games, so hopefully with my help and other guys improving and this team improving, we can play a few more games this year."