Brandon Graham may not fit 3-4, but keeps producing

Brandon Graham may not fit 3-4, but keeps producing
August 22, 2014, 12:30 pm
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Brandon Graham has two of the Eagles' five sacks this preseason. (USA Today Images)

Brandon Graham doesn’t fit what Billy Davis wants. He’s not really an outside linebacker. He’s definitely not a 3-4 defensive end. He’s still trying to master dropping back into coverage. He doesn’t fit here. We keep hearing that, over and over.

OK, enough.

Enough of what Graham can’t do.

Let’s talk about what he can do.

Sack the quarterback.

Graham got only 15 snaps Thursday night in the Eagles’ preseason game against the Steelers, but once again he showed that on a defense with very few guys who can consistently pressure the quarterback, he can not only get there but also finish.

Graham recorded his second sack of the preseason in the second quarter of the Eagles’ 31-21 preseason win at the Linc, throwing Ben Roethlisberger for a seven-yard loss and forcing a fumble that was recovered by the Steelers.

Through three preseason games, the Eagles have just five sacks — two by Graham, two by Vinny Curry (another 3-4 misfit) and one by Alejandro Villanueva.

Graham played only 28 snaps against the Patriots and just 15 Thursday night against the Steelers, but he’s made the most of limited opportunities. He had five tackles, a sack, a tackle for loss and a quarterback hurry in New England and two tackles, a tackle for loss, a sack and a hurry Thursday night.

Graham isn’t a starter and isn’t a classic 3-4 outside linebacker, but he sure is producing right now.

And he’s creating quite the conundrum for the Eagles. What the heck do you do with a guy who doesn’t fit in but keeps making plays?

“I come in, practice every day, work hard and I just try to put it on film to show them that I can help this team win,” said Graham, now in his fifth year.

“I’m just trying to secure a spot because I know how great we can be. I know I can get better, and that’s the thing. Man, if I'm here, I know I'm going to get better each week, because my attitude and focus is all about the team. I know we can take it to the next level, and I want to be here to see us win the championship. I want to be a part of it.”

But despite being one of the few guys on the roster who can generate pressure, Graham’s future is uncertain.

Right now, anything is possible. He could get cut, he could make the team. Heck, it’s even possible — unlikely but possible — the Eagles could cut Trent Cole and his $5 million base salary and let Graham start.

“It’s just a tricky situation,” Graham said. “Hopefully, I’m here. If not, hopefully I can show somebody else that I can definitely get the job done, and that’s all I’m trying to do.

“I know I’m not the ideal size and I don’t play as good in space as I would like. I’m getting better at it, but it’s just one of those things where I know I can go get that quarterback, and I know I can play the run good. It’s just in space, I’m trying to get a lot better at that.”

And playing in space is a requirement to play outside linebacker on first and second down in Davis' scheme.

So while Davis acknowledges that Graham does indeed have the ability to consistently pressure QBs, he’s still reluctant to heap much praise on Graham.

“He’s had a nice preseason,” Davis said after the Eagles beat the Steelers on Thursday night,.

“He’s always had the ability to rush the passer, nobody’s doubted that. Him and Vinny are very good pass rushers. I like to see Brandon getting sacks and disrupting the quarterbacks.”

But dropping back in coverage...

“It’s a work in progress,” Davis said. “Usually the guys that go forward really well struggle going backwards and vice versa. It’s an age-old outside linebacker growth that you do. Guys who move forward, you work on their drops, guys who drop real well, you try and get their pass rush better. The guys are getting better in those areas.”

Graham has only 11½ sacks in four seasons since the Eagles made him the 13th pick in 2010, but with injuries, playing for four defensive coordinators in his first four years, changing schemes, changing positions, he’s never really had a chance to blossom.

Graham’s salary is manageable — just $1.6705 million in base this year — so it’s going to come down to how much Davis thinks he can get out of a 4-3 defensive end trying to shoehorn himself into a 3-4 scheme.

“He doesn’t play a prototypical outside 'backer, but he gets the job done,” Connor Barwin said. “He gets the job done a little different than most guys do it, but you can’t deny his ability to just rush the passer and the pure strength he has.

“There’s so many times you can put Brandon at end in our 3-4 in nickel and that just goes back to what his bread and butter is, just rushing the passer and moving those tackles back. He’s taking advantage of what he’s good at, and that’s what you expect. He’s taking advantage of what he does well, and that’s going to help us a lot."

The Eagles are so high on guys like defensive end Brandon Bair and linebacker Travis Long, it may be tough for Graham to find a roster spot here. If he does get cut, he will find a new home quickly. But even though he might get more snaps somewhere else, he’s hoping that doesn’t happen.

“I love the direction we’re going, and I would love to be a part of that,” Graham said. “Every time I go out there I have to do something positive, because I don’t want to give them a reason to put someone else out there.”

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