Philadelphia Eagles positional reviews: Time for defensive end Vinny Curry to deliver
Our 10-part series of analyses continues with a look at the defensive ends.
Philly.com is looking at the Eagles' 90-man roster this week and next before they begin organized team activities on May 23. Here's the schedule:
May 8: Wide receivers
May 9: Running backs
May 10: Offensive linemen
May 11: Tight ends
May 12: Defensive ends
May 15: Defensive tackles
May 16: Linebackers
May 17: Cornerbacks
May 18: Safeties
May 19: Quarterbacks
Spotlight on: Vinny Curry
When the Eagles inked Vinny Curry to a five-year, $46.25 million contract last offseason, it seemed excessive, but not disproportionate to what he might have earned had he entered free agency a month later. Pass rushers get paid, and the market was light at the position. The Eagles had just hired defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz, who runs a scheme built around pass-rush pressure, and they had a defensive end still in house who was drafted for an identical system.
Curry could hardly get on the field as a rookie, however. Maybe that had something to do with Jim Washburn's burying him on the depth chart. He did the same to Brandon Graham. But Curry couldn't crack the starting lineup the following three years and couldn't last season despite the "favorable" scheme. He can point to the switch to a 3-4 defense as the reason for his lack of snaps from 2013-15, but there were no such excuses in 2016. Curry started the off-season as the starter on the right side, but early in training camp, Schwartz moved Connor Barwin from the left ahead of Curry and promoted Graham to the right. The lineup remained that way for the rest of the year.
It's not as if Barwin was playing lights-out. But Schwartz could trust the now-Ram to be in the right spot on run downs and Curry simply wasn't generating enough pressure in passing situations. There's a valid argument that the defensive coordinator wasn't always putting Curry in the best spots to succeed. Curry's best season came in 2014, when he recorded nine sacks and four forced fumbles despite playing only 32 percent of the snaps. More than half of those sacks, though, came when Curry rushed from inside. He has a quick get-off – it's probably his strongest asset – but it's more effective as a three-technique vs. guards than it is as a nine-tech vs. left tackles. Schwartz gave Curry inside opportunities, but he might need more, and in fact, he might get more. With the addition of top pick Derek Barnett and free agent Chris Long, the Eagles' best passing-down defensive line might consist of Fletcher Cox and Curry inside and Graham and Barnett/Long on the outside.
Timmy Jernigan, who came in a trade, can't be forgotten, of course. The Eagles believe the scheme change from the Ravens might bring out the best in his downhill rushing abilities. Barnett's readiness for the NFL is an unknown, but if he's able to transition quickly, it's fair to speculate if Curry will continue to be more of a pass-rush specialist. The guess here is that he will start the season with the first unit, whether that's on the right or left side. But run defense has never been his strong suit. Schwartz wants his linemen to get up field, but there still must be some gap discipline.
It's too early to say that Curry's contract was a mistake. But he must contribute more than just 2 1/2 sacks as he did last season. In his last 21 games dating to 2015, he has just 2 1/2 sacks and 18 hurries. Howie Roseman gave Curry his contract based partially on projection. There appeared to be a desire to do many things that were the opposite of what Chip Kelly would have done. Kelly got a lot wrong during his year in charge of personnel, but as a coach, he saw Curry as only a role player. It looks as if he got that evaluation correct.
On the 53-man roster: Curry, Brandon Graham, Chris Long
Curry is unlikely to be traded and most certainly won't be released. He costs $9 million against the salary cap for 2017, and all his base salary ($7 million) is guaranteed. It's going to be difficult to move him next offseason, as well. His cap figure is $11 million and if the Eagles wanted to release him they would have to eat $6 million of that number. Graham is coming off a career-best season. His sack total, 5 1/2, wasn't anywhere near the NFL's best, but his combination of hurries and tackles for loss (36) was tied for seventh best among edge rushers. But he needs more quarterback takedowns and has acknowledged as much.
That being said, Graham understands his worth to the team. He has stopped attending offseason workouts and is expected to miss OTAs later this month in hopes of getting the Eagles to restructure his contract (he's slated to make $6.5 million this year), per sources. Practices are voluntary until June's minicamp, so others can deem his absence as nothing more than cursory – as Roseman did during multiple media stops on Wednesday – but the Eagles understand that he wants to be compensated, especially if he's moved to the right end.
Asked by WIP's Angelo Cataldi if Graham had approached the Eagles about his deal, Roseman said that "personally" he didn't. Asked if his agent had contacted the team, the Eagles executive said, "I don't want to go into contract discussions, but Brandon has been unbelievably positive about his role on this football team, being here, and I don't get any dissatisfaction at all with him."
Bottom line: It's hard to see Graham not on this team. He understands that protracted absences rarely result in additional money, and the Eagles understand that he probably deserves a raise reflective of his place on the team. Roseman doesn't have a lot of cap room for 2017, but giving Graham a little more guaranteed money that carries over into next year – in exchange for an additional year that would benefit the team – would seem like feasible common ground.
Graham just turned 29 and hasn't missed a game in more than five years. Is he an elite defensive end? No. But he's very good. What sometimes gets lost in the assessment is his run-stopping talent. Graham has a relentless motor and can make plays from sideline to sideline. As Schwartz once said, he sets the tempo for the rest of the defense.
Long signed a two-year, $4.5 million contract in March. The 32-year-old end might not have the speed and power he had from 2010-13 when he was averaging more than 10 sacks a season, but he should still have gas in the tank. He played in all 16 games for the Patriots last season, logged 677 snaps and finished with four sacks and seven tackles for loss. He did all this playing in a scheme that might not have utilized all his skills. He has said that playing in a one-gap front will free him to get after quarterbacks. Defensive linemen love Schwartz's scheme, but it doesn't necessarily mean that they will thrive in the system. But I wouldn't count Long out. He's considered a high-character leader, and he should help step into a void with Barwin no longer in the defensive-line room.
On the 53-man bubble: Alex McCalister, Steven Means, Marcus Smith
I was tempted to place Marcus Smith "on the 90-man bubble" list, but if the Eagles keep five ends, there's good enough reason to believe he can beat out McCalister or Means for the final spot. The Eagles, of course, kept six defensive ends last season, but only because since-departed special-teams player Bryan Braman was labeled an end. Smith's presumed advantage over McCalister and Means is that he played a lot of special teams in 2016. He also carries a $2,481,533 cap number, and if Roseman had his druthers, he'd probably prefer that the guy who will cost the Eagles almost $1 million in dead money if released makes the roster. It doesn't need to be stated yet again, but for those who have taken the last three years off from the Eagles, Smith has been a disappointment. The team has gotten nowhere near the return on the first-round investment. It should be pointed out, though, that Smith had as many sacks as Curry last season, despite rushing significantly less (135 snaps vs. 299).
Means was active for eight games, but logged only 36 snaps. He did notch a sack. He got on the field for some special teams, and blocked a punt in the season finale, but his value is as a pass rusher. McCalister spent all his rookie year on injured reserve because of a calf strain. The Eagles clearly used the injury to bulk up the then-6-foot-6, 239-pounder. He said he added around 20 pounds. Both Roseman and Joe Douglas have said that they like what they've seen out of the former seventh-round draft pick this spring. McCalister will need more than additional weight if he wants to make the roster and contribute. He needs more than just one or two pass-rush moves.
On the 90-man bubble: None
Draft picks: Derek Barnett
Barnett, naturally, will make the roster. The question on the eve of rookie camp, as it often is with first-round edge rushers, is what can be expected of the Tennessee product in Year 1? The Eagles shouldn't be in a rush to start him immediately, but if he's more productive than the alternatives, there should be no holding him back. He's the future. Rookie ends historically have a difficult time making an impact right away. For every Joey Bosa and J.J. Watt, there is a Dion Jordan or an Aaron Maybin. But the norm for first-round edge rushers is that they need one or two years before they really start to reach their potential (e.g. Ezekial Ansah, Jason Pierre-Paul).
Barnett strikes me as a prospect who will have some early struggles, but will also be able to compensate because of his off-the-field intangibles. I could be completely off the mark, but I don't see a Jordan or a Maybin or a Smith here. Unlike those three, he has basically played end since high school and has produced at every level. Does he project to be as dominating as Bosa or Watt? No. But that doesn't mean he can't be somewhere in that neighborhood. It should be fun to chronicle.
The Eagles didn't draft any other defensive ends and, as of this writing, hadn't signed any undrafted rookies.