Brandon Graham still trying to fit in at LB

Posted: August 01, 2014

It was another placid day at Camp Chip on Wednesday. No fights, no controversy. Very little that resembled news. Just another day of work for a team that has settled into a nice routine under a coach who is anything but routine.

"We're back at it today, and that's great," Chip Kelly said. "That's why we're here."

Unlike a year ago, when everything was new on both sides of the ball and a number of jobs were up for grabs, you probably could write out the starting lineups for the Sept. 7 Eagles opener right now. That would mean deciding between Earl Wolff and Nate Allen at the strong-safety position, the only real battle being decided at camp, and if that gets you excited, go for it.

Otherwise, the most interesting competitions are further down the roster, such as the one testing outside linebacker Brandon Graham's ability to even make the team.

The 2010 first-round draft choice, 13th overall, was taken as a defensive end for his pass-rushing ability. He was limited by injury in his first two seasons but appeared to come into his own in 2012 when he recorded 51/2 sacks. Just as Graham arrived, however, Andy Reid departed, and the Eagles switched to a 3-4 defense under Kelly that turned Graham's world upside down.

As an outside linebacker, Graham had to make the same transition as Trent Cole, learning to add pass coverage to his skill set. Last season was a slow transition for Graham, who got onto the field for only 27 percent of the defensive snaps. This season, depending on how the coaches view his progress at the position, his snaps might be coming somewhere else in the NFL.

"It is a lot different, but I've come a long way, and I think the coaches see that," Graham said. "We've got a great team here. I would love to be a part of it because I know where we're going."

The Eagles fired a warning shot in the draft when they took outside linebacker Marcus Smith with their first pick, and Smith was quietly moved up to second-team defense during practice this week. He switched places with free-agent signing Bryan Braman and is now directly behind Connor Barwin at the "jack" position, which is the Eagles' term for the outside linebacker with more coverage responsibility. Cole and Graham are the first- and second-string players during practice at the "predator" position, which has more pass-rush responsibility.

Kelly has downplayed the impact Smith will have this season, but the rookie has been impressive so far. He's fast, agile, strong, and seeming to be more comfortable on the field every day.

"I'm trying to show them I can play," Smith said. "My strong suit was pass rushing, but I feel I've improved with the run game and dropping into coverage."

The Eagles are grooming Smith to be an all-around outside linebacker, one who can easily transition from one set of responsibilities to the other, but it makes sense that he would get his first snaps as the predator. If that is the case, Graham might have to make the team based on his special-teams contributions, and that would mean going head-to-head with Braman, who is known as a special-teams demon.

As with so many roster decisions, Graham's fate might come down to a combination of factors. Does the team keep four or five outside linebackers? What special-teams help will be coming from the inside linebackers? How quickly does Graham pick up the nuances of pass coverage? Who stays healthy? With more than a month to go until the start of the regular season, none of those questions can be answered yet.

"With me playing a different position, I knew it would take me a year, but I'm a lot more comfortable now, a lot faster," Graham said. "I've learned to love it. At first, it was hard because you're so used to pass rushing. When the quarterback rolls out to your side, your first instinct is to go get him. But now I've got to stay in coverage."

Kelly is noncommittal but acknowledges that Graham, and Cole, had a tougher road.

"It's just getting more comfortable on his feet, understanding that sometimes you have to go forward and sometimes you have to go backward," Kelly said. "Brandon has certain pass-rush skills, he's always demonstrated. It's more about getting comfortable in the drop-back aspect of things."

Graham's contract is up this year, and the Eagles will have to make a decision on him sooner or later. The player says he wants to stay, but that's not news, either.

So, Graham does his work and tries to make a loud impression in what has been a quiet camp. It has begun well enough, but everyone knows it can't end well for all of them.


bford@phillynews.com

@bobfordsports

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