Derek Barnett’s presence on Eagles Defense could fuel an explosive year for Vinny Curry

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Last year was a crucial one for the Philadelphia Eagles, but the importance of the season was clear months before the first snap was taken. The Birds made a flurry of contract extensions last offseason in order to stabilize the franchise and provide a base for Doug Pederson to build around during his first year as Head Coach. Lane Johnson, Malcolm Jenkins and Zach Ertz were three of the players who signed long-term deals in Philadelphia, but one of the more polarizing, was defensive end Vinny Curry.

The 28-year old signed a five-year, $47.25 million contract extension with the Eagles..but the season that followed was underwhelming at best. The cause for concern was naturally high heading into 2017 after Curry ended the year with just 2.5 sacks and 26 tackles. Statistically, Curry was near invisible at times and he had just 1.5 sacks in 12 weeks. However, while the Eagles appeared to overpay for what they received last year, it’s way too soon to abandon hope.

Even though Curry played the most single-season snaps of his career in 2016, he was still seen as next in line to Connor Barwin and Brandon Graham. What stood out in Curry’s game last season wasn’t necessarily showing on the stat sheet, but integral in helping the Motor of the Eagles Defense continue to drive into the backfield to make plays, as Jim Schwartz alluded to upon the start of OTA’s.

“He rushed an awful lot inside last year. It’s hard to be in there when it’s run situations and not first and second down. You know, when we watched film a lot of times with Vinny, and I think you guys probably saw the same thing, his pressure numbers were high, but his sack numbers were low.”

Vinny Curry had 29 QB hurries on the year which may not sound like an awful lot in comparison to Brandon Graham’s league leading 40. But when you take into account that Connor Barwin and Marcus Smith combined for 16, it certainly shows that Curry was able to flash potential in a difficult year.

“I’ve had this conversation with Vinny, so I don’t feel like I’m talking out of school with this.” Schwartz continued. “He didn’t do as good a job finishing the rush as he did starting the rush. A lot of times he would create pressure, and somebody else would come in, [DE] Brandon [Graham], or Fletch [Cox] or somebody else, and they’d sort of get the sack or the quarterback would throw the ball away. [Curry] was on the ground a little bit too much around the quarterback. He needed to be able to take that one extra step and be able to finish.”

When you look at how ruthless Curry played in the year prior to his monster contract extension, it’s easy to see that the local-town hero has the skillset to be a monster on the Eagles Defense. However, much of his explosiveness and tenacity came from rushing inside in Billy Davis’ 3-4 scheme. Sure, Curry was still able to get outside, but his ability to surprise opposing offenses by shooting the gap and getting into the backfield was a valuable asset.

The change to a 4-3 saw Curry focus his attentions outside. While players such as Connor Barwin had previous experience at the position, it forced the former Marshall standout to go the long way round and dig deep in his flurry of pass rush moves. While his athleticism was still on show consistently, charging inside as he did so powerfully in the years prior just wasn’t as common…but when it did happen, the flashes were just as bright.

Curry showed his real potential in the game against Seattle. The Eagles began experimenting with a “NASCAR” package, that saw Curry line up as a defensive tackle on several plays. It was this versatility that earned him 0.5 sacks on Russell Wilson as he aimed to contain one of the most elusive quarterbacks in Football. He led the Eagles in pressures against Green Bay and went on to have a field day against the Baltimore Ravens..which is ironic when looking back. Curry burst into the path of Terrance West several times and helped completely stagnate the run game.

With the wide-nine being designed purely to force everything up the middle into the wake of monstrous defensive tackles and secure tacklers at linebacker, it’s clear to see how Curry can contribute in that facet of the game, just as he did in 2015. With some big money paid to a big-play defensive end, teams began to account for his explosiveness, just as they did with Fletcher Cox, somewhat trying to marginalize his role when on the field.

Then came the 2016 offseason. The Eagles drafted Derek Barnett in the first round, a Tennessee standout who smashed Reggie White’s sack record. One of Barnett’s biggest assets is said to be his ankle flexion coming off the edge, powering around offensive linemen who simply cannot stop that motor from turning as they would with much broader defensive ends.

When you include Barnett’s raw athleticism with the veteran presence of Chris Long and prowess of Brandon Graham, what you have is a chance for Vinny Curry to once again go under the radar and make those same plays he used to under Billy Davis, only flourish as he has so far under Jim Schwartz with the numbers to back up that claim.

With the addition of Tim Jernigan, it would be difficult for Curry to get significant snaps at defensive tackle…or so it would seem. Jernigan is replacing Logan, who in turn was rotated with Beau Allen and Destiny Vaeao last season, with the duo combining for over 60% of defensive snaps. It wouldn’t be out of the question for Curry to situationally switch roles, assuming the same role he had prior to the arrival of Schwartz. But it’s the aggressive defensive coordinator who may hold the keys to Curry fulfilling his potential:

It might be that the addition of Barnett was all Curry needed to slip back under the radar…or maybe it’s just another year under Schwartz who has a habit of getting the most out of his players the second time around, just as he mentioned earlier in the offseason:

“In 2001, I was with the Titans and I had [DE] Kevin Carter. I think Kevin Carter had two sacks and it was a lot of the same things. He had missed opportunities for sacks and he had times where he slipped and fell or the quarterback ducked underneath him. When the season was over, we were sitting there saying, ‘Geez, he had eight or 10 sacks that he had a good opportunity to make that he didn’t make them.’ Good players can make that transition, Kevin Carter did, had a good career. It was sort of a one-year blip and that is the challenge for Vinny – proving last year was a one-year blip.”

The truth is, aside from Derek Barnett, who may take some time to develop into a full-time starter, Curry is the only long-term option that the Eagles have on the outside. Brandon Graham is humbly awaiting his big payday, while Chris Long is on a prove-it deal. The less said about Marcus Smith, the better…and while the likes of Steven Means post an interesting threat to roster spots, their long-term futures aren’t anywhere near as secure as Curry, who will be an Eagle for the considerable future given the structure of his contract. With that in mind, Curry has some leeway despite his new contract.

The Eagles are in a state of building continuity and establishing development. So long as Curry continues to improve, it may be that with Barnett alongside him, the duo’s contrasting skillsets actually become mutually beneficial.

Next season will be just as much about Curry rebounding and finding ways to finish plays, as it will be about the Defense supporting the player whom they put all the chips on the table for. Curry is a rampant inside pass rusher who can flash outside, showing nothing but signs of development as the year wore on. Whichever way you look at the situation, Curry simply has to bounce back in 2017…and he’s in a prime situation to do so. If the Eagles Defense can play to the strengths of a bull-rush specialist in Derek Barnett and an interior havoc-wreaker in Vinny Curry, then the Eagles may have a DE tandem for years to come.

 

Mandatory Credit: Eric Hartline-USA TODAY Sports

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