The Philadelphia Eagles are in need of more pass-rushing production in 2014. Upgrading the NFL‘s lowest ranked pass defense, which conceded 289.8 passing yards per game in 2013, may depend on it. Making the jump from surprise playoff team to legitimate Super Bowl contender may depend on it too.
There’s a reason, after all, that Chip Kelly and company were rumored to have interest in trading for Miami Dolphins defensive end Dion Jordan this offseason. Jordan, who would hypothetically be a better fit in Philadelphia’s 3-4 defense than Miami’s 4-3, has all the tools to emerge as an elite quarterback hunter with more opportunities, but simply wasn’t allotted enough chances as a rookie to make any substantial mark.
Thus, the Eagles were sly attempting to steal Jordan, even as a currently suspended player, from the Dolphins. They knew they needed to improve a pass rush that produced a mere 37.0 sacks in 2013, ranking 20th in the NFL, and was slotted 21st in team pass-rushing productivity by Pro Football Focus. And they knew Jordan, after only 339 snaps as a rookie, was one of most undervalued pass rushers in football by his coaching staff.
But there’s a similarly undervalued pass rusher out there, capable of being the spark that ignites a much more formidable Eagles pass rush in 2014. Like Jordan, he’s said to be playing out of scheme, as a 3-4 defensive end in a 4-3 defensive end’s body. Unlike Jordan, however, he wouldn’t require trading for. That’s because he’s already on the Eagles’ roster.
I’m, of course, referring to defensive end Vinny Curry. A 2012 second-round pick, Curry’s first two years in the league haven’t gone as planned. He was limited to six games and only 89 snaps as a rookie, and although his role expanded in 2013, the 337 snaps he accrued was hardly significant for a former second-round pick.
Curry’s play hasn’t been as disappointing as his playing time, though. In fact, he’s arguably been one of the Eagle’s most effective defenders when on the field. The 4.0 sacks Curry registered in 2013 is impressive when factoring in his aforementioned 337 snaps, the 39th-most among 3-4 defensive ends league-wide, but it doesn’t begin to do his proficiency justice.
Pro Football Focus’ pass-rushing-productivity metric, which combines sacks, quarterback hits and hurries in relation to how many pass-rushing snaps played, sums up how disruptive Curry was as an interior rusher. Curry posted 32 total pressures in just 217 pass rushes in 2013. His 11.6 pass-rushing-productivity score was only surpassed by J.J. Watt, who is arguably the most dominant defensive player in the sport, among 3-4 defensive ends who played at least 25 percent of their team’s defensive snaps.
In a “Secret Superstar” feature on Curry, Pro Football Focus claimed that his aforementioned productivity rating was the second highest the site has ever recorded at the position. Maybe Curry isn’t playing out of scheme, after all. If he’s been that effective rushing the passer as a 3-4 defensive end, perhaps there’s no better spot for him than a 3-4 defensive end.
But pass rushing is unfortunately only one aspect of playing the position. Defending the run is also key, especially considering that an end in a 3-4 is more of an interior player than an end in a 4-3. And Curry, at 279 pounds, lacks the bulk to consistently hold anchor on early downs.
Although there are times when he’s swallowed up attempting to defend the run, he isn’t always the easiest to account for. His impressive initial burst allows him to avoid blocks from time to time, giving him the ability to stuff runs in the backfield on occasion. While maybe not a liability against the run, Curry certainly doesn’t win more battles than he loses, though, with a lack of size being the primary reason why.
The two projected starters in front of Curry are solid as well. Fletcher Cox is a decent pass rusher himself, and Cedric Thornton is one of the stoutest run defenders at the position in the NFL.
Let’s be honest, though. The NFL is a pass-happy league, and it’s becoming increasingly so each season. The impact a dominant pass rusher can have far outweighs that of a stout run defender.
The Eagles must make it a priority to get Curry more involved in 2014. If it comes at the expense of the run defense, so be it.
Cody Strahm is an NFL Senior Writer at Rant Sports. Follow him on Twitter.