Things haven’t always come easy for DE Brandon Graham with the Eagles, but entering his seventh NFL season, he’s smiling and expecting big things.
“I’m in the best shape of my life, taking care of my body, and I’m not hurting as much as I usually do,” he told PFF after practice on Thursday at Eagles camp.
He’s noticeably slimmer too, having dropped 15 pounds from this time a year ago.
But maybe the biggest reason for optimism when it comes to Graham is the new defensive scheme.
After being picked in the first round back in 2010, Graham’s career was derailed by injury, and he found himself down the depth chart once he returned, unable to force himself into the starting spot until Trent Cole left town a year ago. But in limited snaps as a backup or situational player, Graham always graded well at PFF, and the expectation was that he would do those marks justice if he finally got that starting role—which is exactly what happened in 2015.
Graham wasn’t entirely dominant last year, but was the seventh-highest-graded 3-4 outside linebacker and eighth-highest graded as a pass-rusher, even if that wasn’t necessarily reflected when looking at sacks alone.
Like PFF, Graham doesn’t look just at sacks when measuring pressure and pass-rush.
“I measure pass-rush based off of moving the QB, getting him off his spot,” he said.
“You want him to feel you. That’s all I want to do, have my presence be felt. I might not have got you, but I know I forced you to throw. And I’m going for the throwing arm every time. That can be as good as a sack, too. That’s one thing I learned in our defense in the 3-4. Our defensive coordinator, Billy Davis, was always talking about getting that throwing arm, and affecting the throw as much as you can. You might not be able to get there, but you see too many times guys going low and the QB gets it off and it’s a touchdown.
Graham has always generated QB pressure during his pro career. Last season, he only had seven sacks, but added 52 more plays where he hurried or hit the passer, or batted a pass from the QB.
He was a good outside linebacker in a 3-4, but he should be even better as defensive end in a 4-3.
“The scheme—I felt right at home as soon as it happened—I just had to learn the terminology and stuff like that, but it’s comfortable. Now I don’t have to worry about dropping too much, I can just go get the QB, stop the run, and stay in the backfield.”
He told us that he thought he improved as a coverage player as the years went on in that old scheme, and the PFF grades back that up, with his best coverage grade coming in his most recent season—but now he won’t have to worry about it.
“I prefer the 4-3 because it’s just straight ahead—go get 'em,” Graham said.
For anybody worrying about the Eagles employing the wide-9 technique alignment we saw for defensive ends under Jim Schwartz in Detroit, Graham told us that they aren’t lining up quite that wide, precisely because they don’t want to get caught leaving gaps that are too big to cover up.
When the Lions were running the wide-9, the linebackers were under tremendous pressure to fill gaps too big for them to reasonably defend, and it cost them the longer they ran it. Here, they won’t be under quite that much pressure, but the scheme still asks a lot of them.
Those linebackers “have to work off what we do” said Graham. “Some of the stuff is pre-snap stuff that we can talk about, but some of the stuff happens on the fly that they’ve got to react to. I think the communication is really good, it’s just right now, we have to get reps.”
Graham will also be switching back to the left side of the line, where he played primarily back in 2012—the last year he was a defensive end, before spending most of his time on the right side as an outside linebacker.
The Eagles are currently running with Graham and Vinny Curry on the left side and Connor Barwin and Marcus Smith on the right.
“I’m comfortable on the left, but if they needed me on the right, I know I could do it. Now I prefer right-hand down, and they let me have the option, so I went with what I do best, because I can spin from that side, too. I tore my knee spinning from this [the right] side, so it’s kinda scary whenever I’m thinking about it,” Graham said.
For a former first-round pick, it hasn’t been the easiest road for Graham an NFL player. Injury hit hard early in his career, and a succession of different schemes saw him sitting behind established veterans waiting for his chance. Even his starting season a year ago almost never happened.
“Chip [Kelly] was going to let me go at one point, because he liked another guy, Travis Long, over me. And Travis got hurt last preseason game, and I stayed and balled out and I became the starter—and the rest is history.”
But for a player that’s seen a relatively short end of the stick at times throughout his NFL career, Graham is actually almost grateful for the setbacks, because it means he plays with something to prove.
“I think they always just make it hard for me, but it’s good, because I keep that chip on my shoulder.”
Brandon Graham playing with a chip on his shoulder in a scheme that better suits his skill-set should be a fun sight for the Eagles in 2016.