Connor Barwin, Brandon Graham may be NFL’s best OLB duo


When the Philadelphia Eagles chose to release veteran outside linebacker Trent Cole, they knew exactly what their back-up plan was to replace him. While many believed the team would pursue a more versatile, true 3-4 outside linebacker in free agency, they decided to re-sign 27-year old Brandon Graham instead. Although many have labeled Graham a “bust” after a disappointing start to his career with the Eagles, he’s looking to burst onto the scene in 2015.

This past season, Graham excelled as a rotational outside linebacker behind Cole. But in 2015, Graham will be starting opposite of Connor Barwin and the two could form the best outside linebacker duo in the NFL. Both Graham and Barwin excel at rushing the passer and could give opposing offenses during the upcoming season.

In fact, the duo of Barwin and Graham was so good in 2014 that they combined for 18 quarterback hits, 22 quarterback sacks and 68 total quarterback hurries, according to Pro Football Focus. Yet what makes those marks even more impressive is the fact that Graham was only a rotational player and didn’t play nearly the amount of snaps he would as a starter for the Eagles.

Here’s how the duo of Barwin and Graham would stack up against some of the NFL’s best pass rushing duos based on PFF’s statistics for the 2014 season, including their “Pass Rushing Productivity” signature stat which is explained more here:

Here’s how Connor Barwin and Brandon Graham stack up against the NFL’s best pass rushing duos.

As you can see, Barwin and Graham hold their own as a pass rushing duo against some of the NFL’s best. Although they played second lowest amount of snaps, the Eagles’ duo ranked third in quarterback sacks, third in quarterback hits, third in quarterback hurries and first in pass rushing productivity.

That final stat especially stands out because it’s PFF’s true measure of a player’s ability as a pass rusher. It doesn’t account for snaps in which they weren’t rushing the passer, which is obviously important in this case. Graham actually had the best pass rushing productivity mark of any 3-4 outside linebacker in 2014 with a grade of 17.7. He even had a better pass rushing productivity grade than the AP Defensive Player of the Year, Houston Texans defensive end J.J. Watt, who finished with a PRP grade of 15.0.

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It’s clear that Graham is one of the best pass rushers in the NFL but it’s also fair to wonder how he’ll perform with an increased workload. He has never been a full-time starter throughout an NFL season at outside linebacker and the grind could eventually hinder his performance. But then again, Graham had one of his best games of the 2014 season when he started in place of Cole and played all 60 defensive snaps against the Washington Redskins during Week 16. He finished the match-up with 4 quarterback hurries and 3 quarterback hits…in one game!

Barwin had a breakout season in 2014, finishing the year with 16 sacks and was named to the first Pro Bowl of his career. At just 28-years old, Barwin shouldn’t be declining anytime soon and has been the leader of Philadelphia’s defense since signing with the team in 2013. Due to his versatility as a pass rusher, in run support and even in pass coverage, Barwin rarely leaves the field and sets the tone for the Eagles’ defense.

But Barwin could possibly put up even better numbers in 2015, although that may sound absurd. Due to the addition of inside linebacker Kiko Alonso, one of the best coverage linebackers in the NFL, Barwin may be able to rush the passer even more in 2015. Barwin will no longer have to drop back into coverage as much on passing downs and could see one-on-one match-ups due to the talent around him as well. Many seem to be expecting a drop-off in Barwin’s production in 2015, but I’m not buying that just yet.

While it’s certainly fair to question some of Eagles head coach Chip Kelly’s moves this offseason. It’s almost certain that Graham will prove to be one of the best moves overall. The outside linebacker duo of Barwin and Graham will be a dangerous pass rushing group for years to come and could very well prove to be one of the best duos in the NFL someday.

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