Change for Eagles' Brandon Graham ... again

Posted: April 04, 2013

WHICH VERSION of Madonna is best, the Material Girl or the Kabbalah Mama?

How about Cher: Sonny Bono's half-breed gypsy on horseback or Richie Sambora's scantily clad siren on the warship?

Changing times and eroding taste long have forced talents from Jewel to Janet Jackson to recreate themselves.

In less than a decade, the fickle fates of football have forced Brandon Graham to remake himself as often as any '80s pop diva. Those relaunches don't always work.

Graham's career might not survive this overhaul.

"That has been happening," Graham allowed Tuesday, after his first official workout under new coach Chip Kelly's staff. "I haven't had a full year of just playing, where I know where I could play. Everything's always switching."

The Eagles are poised to switch to a four-linebacker, three-linemen attack, which means Graham would move from defensive end to some version of outside linebacker . . . just when things were looking up for Graham.

He has survived great change before.

He starred as a middle linebacker at Crockett Technical High in Detroit, but when he arrived at Michigan, they made him a defensive end. Graham shined in the Wolverines' 4-3 scheme, logging 29 1/2 sacks and spending much of his career in the opposition's backfield.

The Eagles drafted him with the 13th pick in 2010. Graham, light for his position at 265 pounds, added another 10 pounds in preparation for the rigors of the NFL. A training-camp holdout and occasional misuse as a defensive tackle stymied his progress as a rookie, though he surged late in the season. Then, in the 13th game, he tore up his knee and missed the final three.

The injury also cost Graham half of the 2011 campaign; crippling, since new defensive coordinator Juan Castillo and new line coach Jim Washburn had no chance to incorporate Graham into their wide-nine scheme.

By the time Graham got a chance to fully learn and execute the wide-nine late last season the Eagles had fired both Castillo and Washburn and scrapped the scheme. Washburn, in fact, coached as a lame duck in Game 12, in which Graham was used extensively. Graham had four sacks in the last five games of 2012.

So, 3 years into his career, Graham stood poised to justify the pick; to overcome the injury issue; and, most crucially, to step out of the shadow of Jason Pierre-Paul, the Giants' gamble who was chosen almost immediately after the Eagles took Graham.

Three years into his career, Graham is entering the final season of his contract. A big year for a pedigreed 25-year-old of impeccable character can translate into tens of millions of dollars in free agency.

As long as the buyers know what they're getting.

That is not likely to be the case with Graham.

"I'm hoping everything carries over, just with the adjustments I'm going to have to make," Graham said. "Rushing the passer's rushing the passer. I'm going to have to get a lot better to get where we need to go."

Graham insists that he has not been told exactly what he will do. New defensive coordinator Billy Davis has indicated that he likes the idea of using a "Predator," a hybrid lineman/linebacker who could line up anywhere inside the defensive box.

Davis and Kelly also have said they would not necessarily totally scrap the 4-3 alignment.

Since an introductory press conference in February, Davis has not been made available to speak about his plans, or his evaluation of the players he inherited. That includes the two defensive players most affected by the possible scheme change, Graham and Pro Bowl right end Trent Cole.

Nevertheless, Graham has readied his body for a drastic change. He said Cole has, too.

In preparation for the 2010 draft, Graham drilled to convert to linebacker, since any 3-4 team that took him would have converted him. He dropped into coverage, practiced the footwork and lateral movement required of defenders covering tight ends and running backs.

He's doing it again. Graham works out with fellow Michigan product LaMarr Woodley, who predominantly played defensive end in college but who became a linebacker in the Steelers' 3-4 defense, with great success. Eagles general manager Howie Roseman has said Cole and Graham could easily convert to linebacker; perhaps with his fingers crossed, since neither has distinguished himself so far in the rare instances when they were asked to play in space.

Woodley plays at 265 pounds. At 270 pounds, Graham is lighter than he has been since late in his college career.

"I want to lose about 10 more," said Graham. He said he hasn't been that light since his sophomore season in college.

Well, Cher had to drop weight for her reinvention, too. But then, Cher had a great body of work.

Graham does not: just 8 1/2 sacks in 32 career games, 19 fewer than Pierre-Paul. Woodley has had four seasons with more than 8 1/2 sacks.

Even if Graham is the most destructive Predator since Schwarzenegger's jungle foe, he could find himself at a disadvantage when he hits the job market next spring. By definition, in the NFL, as in virtually every work force, there is not a huge market for sub-specialization.

A year from now, Graham might face yet another makeover. He is not the type to fret over possibilities; not with his level of confidence.

"I'm always going to adjust. I'm a ballplayer, at the end of the day," Graham said.

A ballplayer without much track record, with a fourth line coach and a fourth defensive coordinator in 4 years.

"It's a whole new slate for me. I don't know if they really know what I can do. And I know what I can do. I can't wait to show them, this year," Graham said. "It's a fresh start for everybody.

"I just want to make sure I give a great first impression."

Like a virgin.


On Twitter: @inkstainedretch

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