One of the architects of the 3-4 defense, Pittsburgh Steelers general manager Kevin Colbert, recently discussed the process of evaluating a good outside linebacker in the upcoming NFL draft:
“Most of our outside linebackers that have come through our defense were college defensive ends. You have to look at their raw athletic ability. The defensive ends, a lot of times they haven’t dropped, they haven’t caught balls. They will do some of that today, we’ll build on that in their Pro Day and see what they can do not only athletically but mentally as well because it’s a different challenge. They have to become not only a player coming forward but a player that plays in reverse as well.”
One of the more successful outside linebackers to come through the Pittsburgh Steelers franchise is James Harrison. At six feet and 240 pounds, Harrison was himself not tall enough to fit as an NFL linebacker, and not big enough to withstand the pounding on the defensive line. He spent two years on the practice squad and was cut a total of four times. It was not until five years later, after cutting outside linebacker Joey Porter, that James Harrison would have that breakout year and define his play in a dominant defense for years as a Steeler.
On many occasions, the Steelers might have simply lost interest in Harrison, and his career would have earned a reputation in another uniform. Nothing could have led to the team knowing how effective Harrison would be prior to giving him that “shot”.
The Philadelphia Eagles are in a very similar position now. With each year, the team faces the likelihood of waning production from Trent Cole, and with needs at both wide receiver and throughout the defensive backfield, there is a limited amount of draft picks to address skill-sets and depth needed to keep these Eagles in the playoff hunt for the foreseeable future.
In a surprising article by MMQB Andy Benoit, six foot two inch 265 pound Brandon Graham was identified as a member of the 2014 All Emerge Team alongside teammate Cedric Thornton. Prior to that article, I had already considered Graham as a sleeper for the upcoming year. He fits the profile of that breakout outside linebacker – a defensive end with raw athleticism. His achilles heel is simply dropping in coverage. In the second year of playing in the 3-4, I expect this will be the year where everything “clicks”. His performance against the New Orleans Saints was very good, and a good place to build momentum heading into 2014.
So where do I substantiate my optimism? If Graham was good enough to play, wouldn’t he have earned a spot on the roster already? Perhaps, but keep in mind that the Eagles entered the 3-4 with no looking back – that they committed to this defense and didn’t know who could or would thrive in the roles required. And in that guesswork, Graham was simply cast in a reserve role.
2014 is a new season. For the first time since his arrival, there is little controversy. The role is established. His health is not a questionmark. He’s returning to the same coaching staff and scheme. Now it’s on Brandon Graham. In limited snaps, he’s shown signs of excellence. In facing disappointing seasons, he’s used that public disappointment as motivation. Now it’s time to pull it together, weave the colorful fabric of that career defining tapestry, to pull the skill, the motivation, the opportunity together.
Much like Chip Kelly and the Philadelphia Eagles, Brandon Graham has reached a mid point with mixed results. The press has turned from lauding him to writing him off. When the Eagles faced 3-5, they had a choice to give up or play even harder. Brandon Graham has endured the hard knocks of the NFL . He deserves the same chance to play his heart out in 2014, and to do so in an Eagle’s uniform.