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Position review: defensive end

Money for almost nothing

Buffalo Bills v Philadelphia Eagles Photo by Mitchell Leff/Getty Images

Our end of year position reviews continue with defense ends. The Eagles spent $23.5 million in salaries and bonuses for 2016 on defensive ends. Can they get a refund?

Brandon Graham

While other DEs on the roster didn’t earn their keep, Graham’s got a good case he is underpaid. Graham was the 22nd highest paid 4-3 DE and played well above that level.

Per Football Outsiders, Graham was third in the league in total pressures (per Football Outsiders), behind Olivier Vernon who played nearly 300 more snaps than Graham, and Carlos Dunlap, who played nearly 100 more. But those two, and 12 other 4-3 DEs, had more sacks. Graham’s 6 sacks on the season were a disappointing total for a starter on Jim Schwartz’s defense.

But where Graham set himself apart was his run defense. His 12.8% broken tackle rate (per Football Outsiders) was excellent. Like Trent Cole in his prime, Graham has good but not great sack totals and strong run defense, which leads to being underrated nationally.

Verdict: Thumbs up. A double digit sack season in 2017 will get Graham the recognition he deserves.

Connor Barwin

Barwin was the third most expensive Eagle in 2016, and he didn’t come close to playing like it. It was entirely predictable when the Eagles moved to a 4-3 (which they should have) and decided to keep Barwin and play him as a DE (which they shouldn’t have). Barwin is a poor fit as a 4-3 DE as he lacks the pass rushing skills to make him an effective hand in the ground starter, and he struggled against the run as well. For the first third of the season, he inexplicably got more playing time than any other defensive lineman. His playing time decreased during the second half of the season but never dropped below 50% of snaps and only twice dropped below 60%. On a per snap basis, only Steven Means, who played just 36 snaps all season on defense, was a less effective DE.

Verdict: Thumbs down. The Eagles save $7.75 million by trading Barwin. They should be able to find a market for him from a 3-4 team in need of an outside linebacker.

Vinny Curry

The Eagles gave Curry $18 million guaranteed this offseason. Like Barwin, he wasn’t worth it. Curry had just 2.5 sacks, but there’s an argument he should have gotten more playing time. Per Football Outsiders, he finished 21st in pressures. And he did this playing in only 43% of snaps, only twice did he play at least half of snaps in a game. With Connor Barwin ineffective and the Eagles pass rush struggling in the middle of the season, more playing time from Curry might have given the defense a boost.

Or maybe not. Curry played 35% of snaps last year, mostly as a situational pass rusher, and recorded only 3.5 sacks. His 9 sack 2014 season is at this point on outlier, he has just 10 sacks for 2013, 2014 and 2015 combined. At 29 in 2017, an improvement beyond being in the same system for a second year should not be expected.

Verdict: Thumbs down. It’s not Curry’s fault that Howie Roseman gave him a big contract, but he wasn’t worth half that price in 2016. And in 2017 his cap hit jumps to $9 million, currently the 7th highest hit for a 4-3 DE. He’s going to need a great season to justify his roster spot for 2018.

Marcus Smith

Entering training camp, Marcus Smith was seen as a player on the roster bubble after just two hugely disappointing years. Exiting the 2016 season, Smith greatly improved from draft bust to... draft disappointment. He was a solid run defender and added 2.5 sacks in just 21% of snaps. Neither are overwhelming numbers, but for a player who seemed be at the end of his career, it was marked improvement. He’s also a regular contributor on special teams, playing 20% of special teams snaps in 2015 and 18% in 2016. He hasn’t turned his career around, but he’s saved it for at least another season.

Verdict: Thumbs up. A year ago we would have expected the Eagles to cut Smith. Now, he’s a useful role player.

Steven Means

After spending the 2014 season on two teams and the 2015 season out of the league, Means had a solid preseason but didn’t do anything of note during the regular season. He played in just six games as a defender for a total of 36 snaps, and he played just 37 on special teams.

Verdict: Thumbs down. Means was just a guy and with 2016 draft pick Alex McAlister and a potential 2017 draft pick waiting in the wings, the Eagles should move on.