Emerging Player: Brandon Graham Fighting Expectations

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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

Outside linebacker Brandon Graham is fighting expecations, and fighting for a roster spot for 2014.  His team, the Philadelphia Eagles,  enter a season where they must fight not only their opposition, but the complacency that comes from instant success .    In short, they too must fight a battle of expectations.   But Brandon Graham has been fighting the battle of expectations for years.   As he does, he will never be given full credit for his contributions to the team.    In the face of roster moves and building a true champion, it’s important to pause a moment when considering the future of an underachiever like Brandon Graham.

Outside Linebacker Brandon Graham –  Since 2010, the first round pick of the Philadelphia Eagles has been losing the battle of expectations.  But in 2014, that battle will finally be won.   There have been many stories about the trials and tribulations of Brandon Graham, many of them describing the difference between his expectations and what has delivered on the field.

To write about Brandon Graham is akin to resisting the Borg – it’s futile.   Since being drafted in 2010 from the University of Michigan,  with a surprisingly uncharacteristic move of trading up, the Philadelphia Eagles have struggled to make use of the unique talents brought to the field.  Not that his play is not quality, it is.   It’s simply that there is not enough of it to compel fans to believe that the first rounder is that integral component of the Eagles that we’d expected.

In 2010, then defensive coordinator Sean McDermott envisioned Brandon as a “joker” – as a 4-3 defensive end who could stand up as an outside linebacker and play some coverage, or who could place a hand in the dirt and play defensive tackle.    But before the season ended, Brandon injured his ACL, and required a rather serious microsurgery to repair the extensive damage.   2011 was a turbulent year, with a lockout derailing Graham’s rehabilitation schedule, as well as changes to the defensive staff.    By bringing in Jim Washburn to train the defensive linemen in a radically different wide 9 technique, the Philadelphia Eagles hoped to rejuvenate an anemic pass rush.   While Graham continued to rehab, free agent Jason Babin assumed his spot and terrorized NFL quarterbacks en-route to an 18 sack season in 2011.  When Graham returned to health, he found himself at number two on the depth chart, and tasked with learning the 9 technique behind a player who thrived in it.   In 2012, the Eagles no longer needed the services of worn-out-their-welcome Jim Washburn or Jason Babin, and Graham finished the season with five and a half sacks to lead the Eagles as a  defensive end who finished the season as a starter.

In 2013, the game changed again.   In switching to a 3-4, Brandon would once more be tasked with learning a new system and would find himself on the depth chart behind  players who thrived in the new system.

At each turn in the road, there have been any number of articles which hint at “bust” or allude to players who could have been selected at 13 in 2010 who have gone on to have a more prominent impact so far in the NFL.   None know this more than Graham.  In 2012, so much had been written about the man as an NFL bust, that he turned it into his own personal motivation.

"“Right now, I’m a bust, so I’m going to deal with that.  I’m a bust, and I’m going to keep being a bust. Even when I make plays, I’m going to still act like I’m a bust. You know what I’m saying?” – Brandon Graham"

In his career, Graham has endured 4 defensive coordinators, a season ending injury with limited rehab access due to the lockout, three very different defensive schemes, and tasked with making the roster against other players who have career years.   To say it’s been an uphill battle so far is a huge understatement.

But the stage has been set.   The Eagles are in need of an “edge rusher”.   These are widely accepted facts.   The question is – does that edge rusher come from the draft, or from within?     Lets examine some 2013 statistics.

The key to assessing any players effectiveness is to weigh their production against their opportunities.    In 2013, Brandon Graham had a total of 304 defensive snaps.   From that, Graham amassed three sacks (one percent), one forced fumble, zero passes defended, and 19 tackles.     Compare that to outside linebacker Trent Cole, who had a total of 829 defensive snaps, resulting in eight sacks (one percent), three forced fumbles, four passes defended, and 44 tackles.   Finally, Conner Barwin had 1062 defensive snaps, yielding five sacks, one interception, one forced fumble, eleven passes defended,  and 45 tackles.

But there is more to this story.   You want players who rise in the face of the big games.   In the lone playoff game in 2013 – Brandon Graham and Trent Cole had the only two sacks against Drew Brees.   Graham simply makes good use of limited play.

So there’s that.    Still, skeptics will look at Graham as being the atypical outside linebacker in a 3-4 defense, and simply consider him as someone to trade off for a six pack and a tee-shirt and move on to  the flavor of the month in the 2014 draft.  But that would be both short-sighted and  risky as well.  History suggests that some players simply take time to “click”, but when they do – they play at an elite level.