Even Brandon Graham seems surprised he’s still a member of the Philadelphia Eagles. Offseason trade chatter never came to fruition, though, so Graham appears set to resume last year’s critical role in the club’s 3-4 defense.
As Trent Cole’s backup.
Obviously, that isn’t what anybody had in mind for Graham when the Eagles traded up in the 2010 draft to select the Michigan defensive end 13th overall. He’s been a victim of poor timing ever since—unpopular from the get-go because the choice wasn’t safety Earl Thomas out of Texas, injured toward the end of his rookie season then buried on the depth chart by Pro Bowlers when he returned healthy a year-and-a-half later, and finally lost in the shuffle with the Birds’ switch to a 3-4.
It’s a fact Graham isn’t an ideal fit at outside linebacker. Even he concedes he’s not as comfortable playing in space.
That being said, if there’s one thing the fifth-year veteran has shown he can do in any scheme, it’s rush the passer. For that reason, the Eagles can’t afford to let him go yet.
After all, if Cole goes down with an injury, who would rush the passer?
Aside from Connor Barwin, who will remain a starter regardless, the Eagles have Bryan Braman, Marcus Smith, Travis Long and Josh Kaddu on the 75-man roster. Not one of those four reserves at outside linebacker has ever sacked an NFL quarterback all by himself.
Signed from the Houston Texans during free agency, Braman appears to have been brought in strictly for his special teams prowess. He’s played a grand total of 99 defensive snaps since entering the league in 2011.
Philadelphia used its first-round pick on Smith, who finished second in the nation with 14.5 sacks as a senior at Louisville. However, he’s finding it much more difficult to rely on his speed to run around pass-protectors at the next level.
The Eagles are trying to shoehorn Long into a roster spot by having him learn interior linebacker as well, which means the coaching staff knows it can’t award him a gig on merit alone. Signed as an undrafted free agent from Washington State last year, there’s no indication he’s ready for a bigger role.
It’s something of a mild surprise Kaddu survived the first round of cuts. He’s not expected to be on the 53-man roster at the end of the weekend.
That leaves Graham, who can absolutely get after the quarterback. His three sacks last season are deceiving, because he only played roughly a quarter of the defensive snaps. Had he been in the game three times as often instead of Cole, perhaps Graham would’ve led the team instead.
Advanced metrics back up that theory. According to Pro Football Focus, Graham ranked seventh in 2013 among qualifying 3-4 outside linebackers in pass-rush productivity, a formula that combines sacks, hits and hurries relative to how many times a player rushes the passer. Cole was 19th.
Of course, Graham was rated even higher in pass-rush productivity one year earlier when he was still in the 4-3—No. 1 overall at defensive end to be precise. Again, there really is no debate Graham is better suited coming off the edge in a four-man front.
It’s not like Cole or Graham is being asked to drop into coverage a great deal, either. PFF’s game charters have them each dropping 13 percent of the time last season. Given the current personnel, their primary job is to sack the quarterback and defend against the run.
Graham can do those things—if called upon.
For what it’s worth, defensive coordinator Bill Davis tells Reuben Frank for CSNPhilly.com that he doesn’t even see a huge difference between Cole and Graham. When you have a two-time Pro Bowler like Cole, though, and use a system where only one can start, difficult decisions must be made.
“At the end of the day we have to pick one or make a decision who’s going to dominate and that falls in our lap and right now, that’s who that is.”
“There’s only 11 guys who can start, and Brandon is a good pass-rushing, good outside backer and he’s competing and rotating in,” Davis said.
That is perhaps a drawback with the shift to a 3-4, that these two very good players can’t be on the field at the same time in the base defense. That doesn’t mean the Eagles are about to release Graham, though. The reality is they need him.
Graham is the only proven player has behind Cole, on a team that ranked 20th in the NFL with 37 sacks last season. Maybe it’s a good thing the Eagles didn’t trade Graham during the offseason after all.