Brandon Graham can’t do much to change his height. New Eagles head coach Chip Kelly has said he prefers longer, leaner defensive personnel, and the 6-foot-2 Graham doesn’t exactly tower over teammates.
But the fourth-year defensive end is slimming down to 260 pounds -- roughly 15-20 pounds lighter than his usual playing weight -- to adjust to Kelly’s fast-paced practices and a probable position change to outside linebacker.
Graham knows that his frame and build might not fit the mold Kelly prefers, but he figures his other strong points -- specifically, his reputation for putting pressure on the quarterback -- will endear him to the new coach.
“If I make plays and I do what I'm supposed to do, all that will change,” Graham said Tuesday as the Eagles convened for the start of offseason workouts. “I've been talked about [as far as] me being undersized, but I'm here today and all I can do is go hard and everything will take care of itself.
“I feel like I will get a fair shot. I guess we'll see as it goes but I believe with him, with what he was talking about [Monday], everybody has a fair chance to make the squad. It doesn't matter if you're undersized or not.”
Graham enters the fourth and final year of his rookie deal but is once again starting over, a repetitive theme since being drafted 13th overall in 2010.
In 2011, he proved that he could get back onto the field following microfracture surgery from a knee injury that cut his rookie season short. In 2012, he proved that he could still hunt down quarterbacks and that he wouldn’t be another first-round bust.
Graham, who shared the team lead in sacks last year despite playing a part-time role for most of the season, now must reinvent himself into a stand-up edge rusher in a 3-4 defense, a position he hasn’t manned in his career.
“Yeah, it's a whole new slate for me. Shoot, I'm just going to make the best of it,” he said. “I'm just excited because I don't know if they really know what I can do, and I know what I can do. And I can't wait to show them this year.”
Graham said he still hasn’t been told what his position would be or where he’d line up in Billy Davis’ defense, but it’s clear he’s been anticipating a pass-rushing linebacker role since the Eagles hired Kelly, who ran the 3-4 as head coach at Oregon.
If he’s not moving to outside linebacker, then why did he spend the offseason working out with fellow Michigan alum Lamarr Woodley, the Pro Bowl pass-rushing linebacker for the Steelers?
If he’s not moving to outside linebacker, then why is he dropping about 25 pounds and talking about dropping into coverage?
“I did both in [pre-draft] workout, so I was ready for pretty much whatever,” said Graham, reflecting on the mixed number of 3-4 and 4-3 teams that worked him out before the 2010 draft. “Now I'm excited about whether I'm going to stand up or not. If I stand up, that's cool. You can see more of the field and be able to drop and catch INTs and stuff. I just want to show that part of my game if I'm going to be doing that.”
It’s safe to surmise that Graham needs to take another step in his development to preserve his Eagles career, which will end after this season if he doesn’t agree to a contract extension.
Last year, he emerged as the team’s most consistent pass rusher, leading the defense in hurries per snap. He had only 5.5 sacks but didn’t break into the starting lineup until Jason Babin’s sudden release in mid-November.
Graham started the final six games, recording four sacks and 10 hurries. He registered 2.5 sacks against the Bengals, his first professional game with at least two sacks.
Even with the scheme change, the Eagles made it clear this offseason that Graham and Pro Bowl defensive end Trent Cole would both factor into the team’s plans for 2013. But the team also added depth at their position, signing free-agent linebacker Connor Barwin to a long-term deal and also bringing in Canadian Football League standout Chris McCoy, another edge-rushing linebacker, and versatile pass rusher Everette Brown, a former second-round pick.
For the second time in two years, it’s a make-or-break season for Graham.
“There's a lot of people ready to show what they can do. I know for me, personally, it's a fresh start for everybody,” he said. “I just want to make sure I give a great first impression.”