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Brandon Graham (left) and Trent Cole combined 8½ sacks last season. (AP/USA Today Images)
For Trent Cole and Brandon Graham, the key word is patience.
With Chip Kelly’s transition from the wide nine to the 3-4 comes a lot of question marks, perhaps none bigger than where Cole and Graham fit into the new defensive scheme.
And things did not get off on the right foot in the first full practice of Eagles training camp on Friday afternoon. Cole and Graham looked slow out of the gate, getting burned multiple times during a drill in which Kelly had linebackers and linemen covering tight ends one-on-one.
“Sometimes the stuff [doesn't] come together as quick as you would want it,” Graham said after practice. “But I think the way we’re working every day, the sky is the limit for us. We got the motor. We got everything that’s going for us. We just gotta make sure we’re setting up our drops and doing the little things coach wants us to do.
“It’s frustrating sometimes because you know, like, ‘Man, I’m good.’ You just gotta keep playing that over in your head. You gotta know when one-on-ones come, somebody is gonna beat you. You just gotta come back the next play and keep competing. Don’t let it get in your head.”
So how long must we wait until Kelly’s 3-4 defense is sorted out?
“Shoot, by the third week [of camp], if you ain’t got it, you just ain’t got it,” Graham said. “Everybody is working real hard.”
For Cole, a fan favorite and two-time Pro Bowler, switching to a new position may seem like a lot to ask considering his success at defensive end. An established pass rusher, he’s compiled 71 sacks in eight seasons with the Eagles, although he recorded just three last season.
“I’m getting there,” Cole said. “I do feel comfortable [in pass coverage], but I wanna get better. I just gotta take it one practice at a time.
“I don’t know what I’m playing yet. I don’t know if I’m playing [defensive] line or if I’m playing linebacker. But I’m practicing at both. Pretty much to me, I gotta go out there and be an athlete.”
The Eagles need to find capable outside linebackers. They signed one this offseason in Connor Barwin, but the other starter is TBA. Having signed free agent Isaac Sopoaga and drafted Bennie Logan, Kelly said the Eagles "feel better" about their D-line now than they did when he was hired. But ...
"Trying to find those outside linebackers is kind of the key," Kelly said. "I think Trent did a nice job today. It's a transition for Trent. It's a transition for Brandon. It's a transition for Phillip (Hunt).
"We're conscious of that. We understand."
The coaching staff understands the transition will take time and patience. The last time Cole dropped back in coverage on a somewhat consistent basis, Kelly noted, was when Sean McDermott was the defensive coordinator in 2009.
"I think, if you're a good teacher, you don't get frustrated early," Kelly said. "If people could pick it up like that, then everybody would do it. It's not [easy]. It's a hard transition. We believe it's the best thing for us.
"I think it gives us a lot more versatility, and I think it causes a lot of problems defensively because you don't know exactly where that fourth rusher is coming from. But will we be able to get to the total package? That's a real question that hasn't been answered yet, and it won't be answered until we get going.
"The good thing for us is we feel like we've got time. Four preseason games, and you're more than a month away from your first regular-season game."
Although Graham had minimal impact his first three seasons in the NFL, he burst onto the scene last season, recording 50 tackles -- 34 of them solo -- and 5½ sacks. He played in all 16 regular-season games for the first time in his career.
Much has been said about Graham’s weight and conditioning in the past, a major issue for a player who could be forced into a lot of coverage situations with the switch to a 3-4 defense.
However, although Graham was less than impressive in Friday’s practice, he put any scrutiny about his weight to rest.
“I feel good. I feel light on my feet,” Graham said. “I weigh in at 264. Right now, I’m just learning everything and trying to get better with my technique. I know I can rush the passer, I know I can do all of those things.”
A dedication to a new diet has helped Graham -- who claims 264 is the lightest he’s been since his junior year at Michigan -- slim down. He played at 275 last season before the Eagles told him he needed to be in the 260s.
“I wanted to be in the light-60s just so I could cover those guys and be able to run with them,” Graham said.
The transition to linebacker may be easier for Graham, considering he just turned 25 years old in April and has only started nine career games at defensive end.
“[I’m working on] being able to cover guys for a good five seconds, cause that’s all you really need in a game,” Graham said. “Once I get that down and once we put on the pads where we can get in the quarterback’s face, a lot of stuff will change.”
Cole, too, acknowledged that it may all come together once they put on the pads come Sunday at Lincoln Financial Field.
“When you put on the pads, that’s a whole different ordeal,” Cole said. “You really get to see the player and see how he can maneuver in pads and see how he can use his strengths.”
Much like Graham slimmed down thanks to a change in diet, Cole upped his workout regimen.
“I put a lot more into the training,” Cole said. “[I’ve been] doing different things because coming out and trying to practice at the outside linebacker, it’s a totally different speed from playing defensive line. I’m not running just 10-15 yards, I’m running past 20 yards.”
Cole understands that plenty of successful defensive ends have made a smooth transition to the outside linebacker position, namely two other Pro Bowlers.
“I’ve watched James Harrison, I’ve watched DeMarcus Ware. I’ve watched all those guys,” Cole said. “I’ll probably even be calling some of those guys.”