Patrick Causey, Follow him on Twitter @pcausey3
Brandon Graham has served as an outlet for fans’ frustrations ever since he was drafted ahead of Earl Thomas. That frustration grew as Graham’s career got off to a slow start, thanks to a combination of injuries, bad play, and being miscast in a scheme that did not fit his skill set. While Thomas has been selected to five Pro Bowls and three First Team All Pros, Graham has yet to receive a Pro Bowl nod or finish a season with double digit sacks.
Even after Graham’s play improved, praise was always given with the Earl Thomas caveat: “yea, but he’s no Earl Thomas.” “Even now, I hear everybody. It’s already talk on my Twitter,” Graham quipped back in 2014. Graham has resorted to blocking out the noise, both figuratively and literally, especially on Twitter.
But Graham has finally found a scheme that fits his strengths, something Jim Schwartz recognized this offseason. And it’s paid immediate dividends. Through three games, Graham has 3 sacks, 1 forced fumble, 1 fumble recovery and 7 tackles. PFF.com rates Graham as the 4th best edge rusher in the NFL, behind only Von Miller, Carlos Dunlap and Nick Perry. So while Graham isn’t an All Pro talent like Thomas, he is producing at a high enough level to warrant retiring the “he’s not Earl Thomas” talk.
Graham doesn’t overpower players with his size: he’s 6’2, 269 lbs, he doesn’t have a flashy spin move like Dwight Freeney, and he’s not an athletic freak like Jevon Kearse. But what Graham lacks in measurables and flash, he overcomes with a relentless motor.
Indeed, if there was one word to describe Brandon Graham, it would be relentless. He rarely gives up on a play; and it’s that lunch-pail mentality that should (at least by now) endear him to a blue collar city like Philadelphia:
Some might dismiss this play because it occurred in the preseason — it’s just the preseason! — after all. But that’s exactly my point: how many starters make this kind of hustle play during the preseason?
Even when Graham is blocked, he isn’t. Two of his three sacks on the year only happened because Graham never stopped working, never stopped hustling, never stopped pursuing the quarterback:
The other sack, against the Steelers in week 3, highlights the benefits of lining up in the wide nine. Pittsburgh Steelers right tackle Marcus Gilbert is 6-6, 330 lbs, making him four inches taller and 60 lbs heavier than the 6’2, 269 lb Graham. But that size advantage means nothing in space. Gilbert failed miserably at trying to beat Graham to the edge, thanks to Graham’s quickness advantage (4.71 40 time v Gilbert’s 5.12) and the space he received by lining up out wide:
The average size of NFL tackle is reportedly 6’5, 310 lbs, so Graham should enjoy a similar advantage for most of this season. Given the scheme fit and his relentless motor, we should expect Graham’s strong start to continue. And that is especially true for divisional games, where Graham has owned some of the divisions best offensive tackles, like Tyron Smith and Trent Williams.
But Graham isn’t just excelling in pass rushing situations. Despite being a liability in run coverage early in his career, Graham has worked his tail off to become an asset. And that is critically important in Schwartz’s attack scheme, which demands defensive ends to set the edge against the run and funnel the running back to the center of the defense, where behemoths Fletcher Cox and Bennie Logan await.
There were valid concerns prior to the start of the season that the Eagles run defense, which has been stout since Cox and Logan were inserted in the middle of the line, would regress based on the wide nine alignment. But Graham and Connor Barwin’s effectiveness against the run has helped the Eagles defense rank third in the NFL in rushing yards allowed per game, at 71.0.
Graham has popped out on film against the run in a number of ways. From setting the edge to using his quickness to get into the backfield and blow up plays for a loss.
And of course, that relentless motor comes in handy against the run too. When offensive lineman couldn’t block Graham, they’ve resorted to tackling him to the ground. Against the Bears, even that wasn’t enough as Graham was able to bring down the running back for a four yard loss:
Graham still hears the doubters. He uses their criticism as fuel on his relentless path to erase any doubt that the Eagles made the right decision drafting him ahead of Earl Thomas. While Graham might never get to prove all the doubters wrong, that’s just fine too. Because he’s playing damn good, regardless.
In Case You Missed It
Tyler turned to the film to break down a key (but overlooked) running play in the Eagles win over the Steelers.