Graham hopes hard work gives him another roster spot with Eagles

RON CORTES / STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER Arrelious Benn leaps into the stands after scoring a touchdown for the Eagles.
RON CORTES / STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER Arrelious Benn leaps into the stands after scoring a touchdown for the Eagles.
Posted: August 29, 2014

THE NUMBERS don't compute, and Brandon Graham knows it.

The Eagles linebacker was the 13th player taken in the 2010 draft. Yet, in four NFL seasons, he has made only 12 starts, has played only 1,403 snaps, has registered a grand total of 11 1/2 sacks.

The 14th player taken in that draft, Seahawks safety Earl Thomas, has been to three Pro Bowls and twice been selected a first-team All-Pro. The 15th player taken, Giants defensive end Jason Pierre-Paul, has been to two Pro Bowls and put up 16 1/2 sacks in his second season. But you knew that, didn't you, Eagles fan?

Like the Eagles, the Seahawks and Giants had their final preseason tuneups last night. Neither Thomas nor Pierre-Paul played in his respective game, as was the case with most of the starters around the league.

Graham isn't a starter. He went into last night's 37-7 win over the Jets still not totally sure whether he'll have a spot on the Eagles' season-opening 53-man roster. Graham played the first quarter before getting the rest of the night off.

"Any chance I get out there, I'm trying to prove I'm worthy of a spot on this team," he said.

Three-and-a-half months ago, when the Eagles began their offseason workouts, Graham's chances of making it to the starting line of his fifth season with this team didn't seem very good. The Eagles selected an outside linebacker, Marcus Smith, in the first round of the May draft. They talked up second-year linebacker, Travis Long, every chance they got. Yet another new outside linebacker, Bryan Braman, seemed to have a roster spot assured because of his special-teams prowess.

But Graham has worked hard and had a good training camp and preseason. He still has some some holes in his game, which he will be the first to admit. Still isn't comfortable dropping into coverage. Still struggles to tackle in space.

But he's done a good job of rushing the passer this summer, and on a team that finished 31st in the league in sacks per pass play last year, that is no small thing.

"He's had a nice preseason," defensive coordinator Bill Davis said. "He's always had an ability to rush the passer. Nobody's ever doubted that. Him and Vinny [Curry], they're very good pass-rushers. So I like to see Brandon out there getting sacks and disrupting the quarterback."

Graham spent most of the first quarter last night dropping into coverage, while rookie first-rounder Smith rushed.

Graham played only 331 snaps last season. By comparison, Connor Barwin played 1,158 and Trent Cole played 908. He had 167 pass-rush opportunities and recorded three sacks, four quarterback hits and 17 hurries, which is a pretty good rate.

But after the Eagles drafted Smith, Graham wondered whether he had a future with the team. He is in the final year of his contract. He has a $3.4 million cap cost, which isn't a lot in the big scheme of things, but is a lot for a 300-snap guy.

"When we first came back for the minicamps, I kept hearing all this talk about being traded," he said. "I thought I was going to get traded before I got back [for the start of training camp]. But they stuck with me, and I feel I owe the team and the fans a lot because I know things haven't gone the way they're supposed to for a first-rounder. But I know I can play. It's time to take off."

This summer, Graham finally stopped worrying about being a first-round bust, about failing to live up to expectations, about the numbers game and whether he was going to make the team. He just went out and played and let the chips fall.

"When I stopped worrying about all of that, that's when things started getting better for me," he said. "Because I was into that [thinking], 'Man, I don't know what they're going to do.' And I was trying to do extra stuff to make sure I reserved a spot.

"But I'm like, I know I can play the game. Let me just do what I do. And that's work hard. Whatever happens happens. As long as I don't have any regrets, I'm cool. Because I know I can play."

While anything is possible, it looks as if Graham will make the team. If Smith were more ready to make a contribution, then maybe there would be some doubt. If Braman had proved he has some pass-rush or coverage value in addition to playing on special teams, then maybe there would be some doubt.

Braman didn't get on the field with the defense until the fourth quarter last night, but did sack the Jets' No. 4 quarterback, Tajh Boyd, on his first play.

In addition, Long has been cross-training as both an inside and outside linebacker, which might allow the Eagles to carry one fewer inside 'backer and one more outside rusher.

"I don't have any regrets," Graham said. "I've been working my tail off. I understand it's a business. I understand I'm not in a position they would want me to be from an outside linebacker standpoint.

"But they know that I love being here, I love working, and out there on the field, I can go get the passer."

Like Cole, Graham feels much more comfortable in Davis' 3-4 scheme this year than he did last year when he was making the transition from a 4-3 d-end to a standup linebacker.

"This year, I know where to be," he said. Now, it's all about being able to tackle in space. There have been a couple of times where I just looked bad. I'm not even ashamed to say that.

"But I know my weaknesses and where I need to get stronger. And that's an area I definitely need to get stronger in going down the road. Because I don't want to be the reason that somebody gets a key first down in a game because I missed a tackle, you know?"


On Twitter: @Pdomo


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