Philadelphia Eagles: Get Ready for Brandon Graham


Mention Brandon Graham to many Philadelphia Eagles’ fans and here’s what comes to mind:

Earl Thomas.

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Thomas, the terrific Seahawks safety, is the guy many fans assumed the Eagles were going to take when they slid up to the 13th pick in the 2010 NFL Draft. And he’s certainly the guy most fans wanted the Eagles to take:

Future Hall of Famer Brian Dawkins had left after the 2008 season. The Eagles, who had become accustomed to superb play on the back-end of their defense, clearly missed Dawkins in 2009. Earl Thomas seemed like a natural fit. A no-brainer, really.

So the announcement that the Eagles were selecting Michigan pass-rusher Brandon Graham… was met by some with a mix of disappointment and confusion.

Thomas went with the very next pick. And he’s been a Pro Bowler and an All-Pro four times. One of the best players in the league, simply put.

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The road for Graham has been a little different.

First off, rookie pass rushers aren’t effective. That’s a pretty good general rule to live by. It’s hard to convince a lot of fans of that important fact (see: Marcus Smith III.)

In trying to temper the excitement surrounding some of the better pass rushers in the 2015 Draft, Pat Kirwan, of CBS, wrote:

"One defensive coordinator said any decent left tackle in the NFL can watch two games of a rookie pass rusher and neutralize their best move. It could take the rest of the season, if not longer, for the rookie to come up with a counter."

There are exceptions to any rule. But exceptions to the rookie-pass-rushers-just-aren’t-that-effective rule… are truly exceptional.

Brandon Graham started six games, played in thirteen, notched three sacks (all pretty par for the course for a rookie situational rusher,) and then hit a major hurdle:

He tore his ACL in a week 14 game against Dallas.

People began to whisper that Graham might be a ‘bust.’

While Brandon Graham was rehabbing, the Eagles were completely changing every aspect of what Graham had learned as a rookie:

Defensive coordinator, Sean McDermott? Gone. Defensive line coach, Rory Segrest? Gone.

Offensive line coach Juan Castillo took over the defense (in what is still one of the more puzzling moves I can recall in recent Eagles’ history,) and Jim Washburn and his wide-9 scheme were brought over from Tennessee to completely retool the defensive line.

Castillo and Washburn didn’t even last two seasons in their respective roles: A 25-game (or so) era that most Eagles’ fans would be happy to forget.

But aside from not helping the team, the timing was terrible for Graham’s development.

Returning from his injury in October of 2011, Graham was being asked to learn an entirely different scheme under Washburn. Jason Babin, who had been with Washburn in Tennessee, knew the scheme and, thus, saw most of the playing time. While Babin starred in 2011, Graham became something of a forgotten man along the Eagles’ line.

The ‘bust’ whispers that had begun to develop when Graham didn’t immediately impress as a rookie had now escalated to screams. Earl Thomas, after all, was starring for the Seahawks. Why hadn’t the Eagles just drafted him instead?

The Eagles were coming down off of their most successful era as a team. They weren’t good anymore. Graham became, for many fans, somewhat representative of the fact that things were off-track.

While he was barely putting Graham on the field, Jim Washburn wasn’t helping him much off of it either. Washburn, known for his fiery personality and no-nonsense approach, isn’t one to coddle. And the effect on a young pass rusher trying to recover from a major injury while learning an entirely new defense? Went about as well as it sounds like it might.

After practice on Monday, Graham told CSNPhilly’s Reuben Frank,

"The low point was when Wash was here. That was my low point, because Wash would make you feel bad, boy, like you can’t play at all… you start to doubt yourself a little bit because the coach is on you 24/7, and you know, it was tough."

So, to the relief of many, Washburn and Castillo lost their jobs in 2012. In the middle of the year.

Interesting to note that in the four games after Washburn was fired, Graham saw more action and notched 2.5 sacks and 12 tackles after only managing 18 tackles and 3 sacks in the first 12 Washburn-coached games of the season.

Clearly losing Jim Washburn was good for Brandon Graham.

Sep 19, 2013; Philadelphia, PA, USA; Philadelphia Eagles linebacker Brandon Graham (55) during the National Anthem before the game against the Kansas City Chiefs at Lincoln Financial Field. Mandatory Credit: John Geliebter-USA TODAY Sports

But while the move was for the best, it meant yet another learning curve.

And with the 2013 season came a complete overhaul.

In came Chip Kelly. And in came Billy Davis. And in came a 3-4 defensive scheme that would require Brandon Graham to not simply change techniques… but change positions.

Now a linebacker, Graham was being asked to do more than rush the passer: he had cover tight ends and help set the edge against the run. He battled it out with fellow former 4-3 defensive end Trent Cole for the starting job. He lost. Cole, being taller and leaner and more experienced, had a more natural time making the adjustment.

Graham played part-time behind Cole and continued to show the flashes he showed in 2012 of being extremely effective in limited action.

Last year was something of a revelation for Graham: It was the first time in his career that he could prepare for a new season with the same coaches, scheme, and playbook as the season before. And the effect showed.

In a mere 225 snaps as a pass rusher Graham racked up 51 quarterback pressures according to Pro Football Focus. That productivity, in a small sample-size, ranked Graham as the single most efficient pass rusher among 3-4 linebackers in the NFL. And what about the other aspects of the game? He ranked fourth among 3-4 linebackers against the run in 189 snaps and even showed some versatility in coverage.

But Graham’s effectiveness isn’t something that merely showed up to analysts breaking down the numbers.

His performance in 2013 was enough to convince Eagles’ coaches that they could let Trent Cole leave via free agency and enough to convince them to sign Graham to a lucrative 4 year, $26 million contract to remain an Eagle.

Graham is now penciled in as a starting outside linebacker for the Eagles. The team is asking him to translate his incredible part-time numbers into full-time production.

The ‘bust’ label? Gone.

Graham was a highly regarded free agent this off season and could very easily have left the Eagles for a sizable pay day and a starting job somewhere else. Folks around the league have taken full notice of the kind of damage Graham causes when he’s on the field.

He’s now truly scheme diverse… able to rush the passer with his hand on the ground in 4-3 alignments and able to stand up and set the edge, cover, and get after quarterbacks as a linebacker in a 3-4. He’s gone through the NFL gauntlet:

From impossibly high expectations.

To massive injury.

To a revolving door of coaches and schemes.

To negotiating a new contract.

And he’s come out clean on the other side.

Graham could have left the Eagles this offseason and no one would have questioned that call. He’s been through a lot. But Graham didn’t want a change of scenery. He wants to be in Philly. He wants to show everyone the type of player he’s always known he could be. He might not be a ‘bust’ anymore, but he’s not going to forget the label:

“I’m still going to have that mentality,” Graham told “Because, now I finally get my opportunity that I’ve been waiting on. But, I still have that chip on my shoulder. Now, I can’t wait to get out there on 80 to 90 percent of the plays and see what happens after that.”

He’s in the same scheme for a third consecutive season. His weight is down so he can be even more effective in coverage. Chip Kelly says he may be, “pound for pound” the strongest player on the team. Things are looking bright for Brandon Graham in 2015 and he knows it.

“I’m just excited,” Graham told CSNPhilly. “Hoo-hoo, it’s going to be a good year. That’s all I’m going to say.”

For what it’s worth? I’m excited, too. And Philadelphia Eagles fans should be. In Brandon Graham… you certainly don’t have a bust. And you might just have a star.

Next: Eagles: Dealing with Bradford

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