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Football Notes

Curry’s case is a lesson in linebacker evaluation

By Greg A. Bedard
September 25, 2011

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For casual fans outside the Pacific Northwest, it probably didn’t register much, but a move by the Seahawks last week is being closely watched in NFL circles.

Two years after being the fourth overall pick out of Wake Forest, Seahawks linebacker Aaron Curry is in an open competition with 2011 fourth-round pick K.J. Wright for the starting strong-side spot.

“He’s good. He was professional,’’ said defensive coordinator Gus Bradley about Curry’s reaction. “I’m sure he doesn’t like the situation, but he’s responded well. He goes out there and practices hard, and he’s been a true professional.’’

Curry has just five sacks in three years as the Seahawks have struggled to find a way to use him. Of course, it didn’t help that Curry was drafted by coach Jim Mora and general manager Tim Ruskell, who were fired after Curry’s rookie season.

“I don’t even know how to put it into words,’’ Curry said. “Things happen for a reason. There’s a purpose behind everything, and I’ll find it, learn from it, and take off running.’’

The writing was on the wall for Curry, 25, after he agreed to renegotiate his contract. His salary next season is no longer guaranteed, and his contract was shortened.

Curry was the highest linebacker picked in the draft since LaVar Arrington went second overall in 2000.

He was thought to be one of the safest picks in 2009. At 6 feet 2 inches, 255 pounds, and with 4.52 speed, Curry had all the measurables to excel as an outside linebacker in the NFL. He’s also smart and has great character. Curry seemed like a can’t-miss-kid.

But he has missed. At least to this point.

In talking to several NFL scouts about Curry’s plight, there were a few overriding themes that speak to the evaluation of college players.

For one, you have to project how a prospect will fit in your scheme or how he should best be used. Getting good players is a good thing because they’ll always have some value, either with your team or another. But if you want bang for your buck, that player has to project to be a success for your team.

Mora and current Seattle coach Pete Carroll both targeted Curry as a linebacker on the strong side, where you have to be strong enough to hold the edge against the run and athletic enough to cover running backs. But Curry seemed more suited to the weak side, where players are free to make plays and rush the passer.

In his short career, that’s when Curry has been at his best. But some doubt that he’s a good enough tackler in the open field to play the “Will’’ linebacker spot.

One NFL executive thinks Curry could still make an impact elsewhere.

“Curry may ultimately be better with a hand on the ground,’’ he said.

That would seem to put Curry as an end in a Cover-2 scheme in which his speed would be an asset.

The other things being considered in front offices is whether linebackers have value at the top of the draft, and their college production translating to the NFL.

Before this year’s draft, the number of linebackers taken in the first round since 2001 trailed every defensive position except safety.

Since the Redskins selected Arrington in 2000 and before Von Miller went second overall to the Broncos this year, there were just five linebackers taken inside the top 10: Rolando McClain (2010, Raiders), Curry, Keith Rivers (2008, Bengals), A.J. Hawk (2006, Packers), and Ernie Sims (2006, Lions).

McClain’s impact has yet to be determined, but for the rest of the group, you can at least say they failed to live up to their top-10 spots.

Curry’s situation is similar to that of Hawk, who was taken fifth overall by Green Bay. He’s certainly been more productive than Curry, but for a time Hawk’s starting spot was also in question.

Hawk is a good player, but what the Packers learned in drafting him was that you have to look at the correct college production numbers.

Both Curry and Hawk, who tested similarly athletically, had a high number of tackles, tackles for a loss, and interceptions in college.

What they lacked were a high number of sacks and fumbles forced. Those are more indicative of playmaking ability than stats predicated on scheme.

“Both of them were good college football players who didn’t make a lot of game-changing plays in college,’’ said an NFL executive. “While [Hawk] has been a solid pro with good tackle numbers and heady play, you hope for bigger plays when you get a guy [in the top 10], especially at linebacker.’’

The Broncos adhered to that formula when they took Miller this year. Miller had as many college sacks as Curry and Hawk combined, and more tackles for a loss, passes defensed, and forced fumbles - in about half the games.

The more impact a player makes in college, the better the chance of him duplicating it in the pros.

That’s the lesson being taken from the travails of Curry.

UNHAPPY UMENYIORA
Reluctantly, he’ll return In this week’s installment of “As The Giants Turn,’’ disgruntled defensive end Osi Umenyiora is getting closer to a return.

The two-time All-Pro had knee surgery Aug. 19 shortly after the team revoked its permission for Umenyiora to seek a trade.

He spoke to reporters Thursday for the first time since training camp and basically said he’s returning to help his teammates, and he’s so upset with management that he wouldn’t give full effort if he didn’t have to.

“You just have to find exactly what it is that you’re playing for, a different motivation,’’ Umenyiora said when asked how he’ll set aside his feelings. “If I was to sit over here and say, ‘OK, I’m going to go out and play for the Giants organization,’ then I might not go out there and give it my all.’’

Umenyiora - knowing it wasn’t quite the right analogy - compared his situation to that of a soldier.

“I hate to compare football to war,’’ he said, “but they wouldn’t tell you they’re fighting for the United States government, they’ll tell you they’re fighting for the guys next to them, the guys who they bleed and sweat with.

“That’s exactly what I would say I’m playing for now. I love these guys. Maybe I’m not getting paid the way I would like to, but I’m still going to go play because I love those guys.’’

Early in training camp, Umenyiora turned down the Giants’ offer to add incentives to a contract that he felt didn’t fairly compensate him.

“It’s just not right,’’ he said. “I made that mistake before. I signed something that at the time I thought was good but in retrospect it wasn’t right for me.

“I just know I can’t make that same mistake again. I can’t. Because if I do sign that, then it seems like something has been done when in actuality nothing has been done. I’ll just take my chances and keep playing and see what happens.’’

Umenyiora was asked what advice he would give young players.

“Don’t sign a seven-year contract when you are 23 years old,’’ he said.

ETC.
Getting Luck on your side It’s not exactly family-friendly, but we wouldn’t be doing our job if we didn’t point out that “Suck for Luck’’ campaigns are sprouting up all over the country. They are where downtrodden fans go to pine for their team to tank this season in order to select Stanford quarterback Andrew Luck with the first overall pick next spring. The biggest bandwagons are in Miami, Indianapolis, Minnesota, Seattle, and, surprisingly, Kansas City. It feels like just yesterday that former Patriots quarterback Matt Cassel was the toast of the town in Kansas City and the recipient of a six-year, $63-million contract. Now some fans want Cassel, coach Todd Haley, and general manager Scott Pioli out after the season. And they’ve even vowed to cheer the opponent to see it happen - especially in games against the Vikings, Colts, Dolphins, and Broncos, who could be rivals for the top pick. Cassel has four interceptions in two games after tossing seven all of last season. By the end of this season, Cassel will have collected about $40 million on his contract. He’s more cuttable in 2012, when his cap charge is $5.5 million, than in the final two years ($7.7 million and $9.2 million). “With any football team, you have to have a short memory, and you have to keep pushing forward, and that’s what this group is doing,’’ Cassel said.

Nickel package 1. We all understand that quarterbacks are a protected species (gotta protect those fantasy points), and leg and head shots should be carefully monitored. But both Andre Carter of the Patriots and Desmond Bishop of the Packers were flagged, basically, for tackling too hard in the chest. It’s ridiculous. No truth to the rumor the NFL is spending billions in research on an invisible shield for quarterbacks so all defenders bounce off.

2. If I wanted to watch players fake injuries, I’d watch the other football. Have some respect for the game.

3. Take a picture today when Buccaneers cornerback Ronde Barber has to cover Falcons tight end Tony Gonzalez. Both are in their 15th year, with 16 combined Pro Bowls. Might not see it again.

4. Pro Football Weekly reported that there’s a growing disconnect between Seahawks coach Pete Carroll and general manager John Schneider. Carroll vehemently denied a rift, but you have to think somewhere Bobby Grier is chuckling.

5. So sad to hear that former offensive tackle Orlando “Zeus’’ Brown passed away at the age of 40. He started his career with Bill Belichick’s Browns in 1993 and was loved by his teammates. Things were never the same for him after he was hit in the eye by a penalty flag thrown by referee Jeff Triplette in ’99. Such a shame.

By the numbers 0-8: Chiefs’ record over their last eight games, including preseason.

2: Touchdowns scored by 49ers kick returner Ted Ginn Jr. - the same number scored by the Jaguars and Chiefs combined.

8: Starting quarterbacks for Jaguars coach Jack Del Rio in his nine seasons when he gives the ball to first-round pick Blaine Gabbert today at Carolina.

25-3: Record of the Texans under Gary Kubiak when they rush at least 30 times, including 2-0 this season.

65.9: Passer rating for Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan in six career starts against the Buccaneers, today’s opponent. He also has thrown eight interceptions against five touchdowns against Tampa Bay, yet still owns a 5-1 record against the Bucs.

New England update Defensive end Tim Bulman, a Milford native, was waived and re-signed by the Texans last week. The Boston College product was on injured reserve for the 2010 season after shoulder surgery. He posted a career-high four sacks in ’08 and played 15 games in ’09. He is known as the hardest worker on the team, with a relentless motor. Bulman has been used as a reserve to spell first-round pick J.J. Watt . . . North Attleboro’s Anthony Sherman won the starting fullback job for the Cardinals out of training camp when veteran Reagan Maui’a was released. Sherman, a fifth-round pick out of Connecticut, has played 34 snaps this season on offense, according to profootballfocus.com, and is expected to be a core special teams contributor.

Short yardage With Chris Harris and Major Wright likely out against the Packers, Brandon Meriweather will start at safety again for the Bears. “We didn’t pay him good money to come in and sit on the bench,’’ said linebacker Lance Briggs. “He’s a playmaker.’’ . . . The Redskins are 2-0 and reveling in the quiet surrounding the team after years of turmoil, including some involving Albert Haynesworth. “It’s boring,’’ linebacker Lorenzo Alexander said with a smile. “That’s the way it should be. That’s how good organizations are run.’’ . . . The Texans will catch a big break in their quest for the franchise’s first 3-0 start if Saints linebacker Jonathan Vilma is forced to miss today’s game with a knee injury . . . Rams receiver Danario Alexander had three catches for 122 yards against the Giants. This from a guy who has had five operations on his left knee. “I watch him all day,’’ said coach Steve Spagnuolo. “It’s amazing what he does from a physical standpoint with the injury he has. He’ll never tell you he has anything wrong, but he does have to manage it.’’ . . . Since head coaches Gary Kubiak (Texans) and Sean Payton (Saints) were hired in 2006, their quarterbacks have been the most accurate in the NFL. The Saints rank first in the league with a completion percentage of 66.8; the Texans are second at 66.2. . . . Funny coach-reporter exchange: Asked by Florida-Times Union beat writer Vito Stellino if he had a theory on why the Jaguars have 11 losses by 14 points or more under Del Rio, the coach asked if Stellino had one. “You wouldn’t like my theory,’’ said the acerbic Stellino . . . In the last 20 years, Green Bay has drafted 21 players in the first round. Five were inactive in their first game, but three - Aaron Taylor, Jamal Reynolds, and B.J. Raji - were inactive because of injury. This year’s first-round pick, tackle Derek Sherrod out of Mississippi State, joins defensive lineman Justin Harrell (2007) as the team’s only healthy inactive first-round players in the past 20 years. Harrell finally cemented his bust status when he was cut this year, and nobody has signed him to date . . . The Falcons got back to basics and worked on tackling after missing 17 in the season-opening loss to Bears. Falcons linebackers had 22 tackles in the win over the Eagles. “They played better in this game,’’ said defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder. “All three were productive. All three had moments that I know they wish they could have the play again. We’ve got a couple of issues that we’ve got to make sure that we are solid and sound from the linebacker position and avoid giving up big plays.’’

Greg A. Bedard can be reached at gbedard@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @gregabedard.

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