The Eagles pass rusher was underused last season. But considering his performance in limited snaps—and Philly’s transition to a simplified 4-3 defense—Curry is setting up to be one of 2016’s breakout stars
When I visited NFL Films last December, the one name that came up most often in the film room was (believe it or not) Vinny Curry. The question everyone kept asking: Why doesn’t he play more? I had often wondered the same thing.
Curry, a second-round pick in 2012, was the Eagles pass rusher who flashed most often on film last season. His initial get-off is impressive, especially for a 279-pounder who stands 6-foot-3 (a frame that doesn’t naturally lend itself to low leverage). He amplifies that burst with quickness, both in hands and lateral agility. That might sound highly specific, and it is. But any offensive lineman will tell you, lateral agility in a pass rusher is what makes it most difficult to deliver clean contact.
A few months ago, I was studying film with an NFC East offensive lineman. I asked him who were the two toughest players he faced last season. One was Cameron Jordan. The other? You guessed it (but only because you’re reading this story). That offensive lineman also didn’t understand why Curry played only 35 percent of Philly’s snaps in 2015, the 16th-most on their defense.
And so I went to the last day of the Eagles’ minicamp to ask Curry myself. When I found him, he was facing his locker, his back to the room, talking on the phone. We’d never met, but when he sensed me loitering, he turned around and asked if I was waiting on him. I said yes, and he got off the phone. This might all seem inconsequential—and it absolutely is. But any reporter who has ever worked an NFL locker room knows that having a player make the interview this easy is akin to having every car in Manhattan immediately pull to the side of the road so that you can get by. It’s such a pleasant surprise because it never happens.
Curry maintained this politeness throughout our conversation. I asked him why he didn’t play more, and his response was what you’d probably guess: “You know, that’s something you’d have to ask the last coaching staff. That I can’t really answer. But I just made the best of my opportunities, you know, whatever was asked of me, I just did it.”
That previous staff, led defensively by coordinator Billy Davis, demanded a lot from defensive linemen. Davis used a variety of different fronts, placing D-linemen in various gaps from snap-to-snap, often as part of a disguise. The gap a defender aligned in before the snap was not always the gap he’d play after the snap. The chicanery had a lot of plusses, particularly on first and second downs when the offense had more run-blocking responsibilities (run-blocking can force O-linemen to have to make decisions on the move; disguised fronts complicate those decisions). But for Curry, who played primarily nickel three-technique but also several different defensive end techniques depending on the call, this wasn’t necessarily the best thing.
“Vinny is an interesting guy because, in my opinion, you have to know how to coach him,” says Eagles veteran edge defender Connor Barwin. “He’s so explosive, you have to more or less let him just go. When you try to give Vinny a lot of different assignments, places to be, it can slow him down. But when you really just cut him loose, that’s when you see him have a lot of success.”
Cutting Curry loose is exactly what new defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz will do. Schwartz runs a much more basic 4-3, gap-penetrating zone scheme. Often the defensive line’s focus is on getting upfield. “My best attribute is to go forward,” Curry says.
Schwartz agrees. Earlier this offseason, in an interview with 97.5 The Fanatic, Schwartz said, “There are some guys that really fit in the defense here last year. I think he was one guy who wasn’t a great fit. He played in that square stance. They play a lot of two-gap. That’s been proven to be an effective system, also, it just didn’t fit Vinny very well. I think we can cut the handcuffs off of him, so to speak, and cut him loose along with the other guys up front.”
The question is whether Curry can settle into a first- and second-down role. He’s a three-technique in nickel and, if the Eagles play with leads and face a lot of passing situations, he’ll probably top that career-high nine-sack mark set in 2014. But if Curry is to become one of the league’s true breakout defenders of 2016, which he’s more than capable of, he’ll have to find an identity on first and second down. Given that Fletcher Cox is an elite early down three-technique, Curry’s best shot at playing time will come at defensive end. The Eagles have two strong pieces here already—the sturdy Barwin and the underrated Brandon Graham. Yet this offseason they still inked Curry to a new five-year, $46 million deal ($18 million guaranteed). Ostensibly, they expect him to not just play inside in nickel, but also fill out a true three-man rotation at end.
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