We’ve talked quite a bit about Brandon Graham this offseason. Is he a SAM or Predator? Is he a starter or backup? Trade him or build around him?
If the Eagles were playing a pure 4-3, Graham would be the LDE and there would be no questions. For better or worse, that won’t be happening. The Eagles will switch between the 3-4 and the 4-3 Under. Graham’s future is now a mystery.
The simple case for Graham is that the Eagles drafted him 13th overall back in 2010 and saw him as someone to build the defense around. Even this offseason, Howie Roseman referred to Graham as a cornerstone player. Graham is coming off his best season. He played in all 16 games. He had 5.5 sacks, 3 TFLs, 2 FF, and 38 total tackles, all career highs. Pro Football Focus said Graham had the “best pass rushing productivity of any defensive player”. They didn’t stop there. PFF’s number crunching had Graham #1 in the league at drawing penalties. Remember that drawing penalties is good, getting them is bad. All of this sounds pretty darn good.
The simple case against Graham is more complicated. There are no simple numbers to tell the story. We will start with size and fit. Graham is 6013. That means he is 6-1 and 3/8. Chip Kelly prefers tall players. Graham also has short arms so he can’t make up for the lack of height in that area as some others can. Graham is now moving to linebacker, a position he hasn’t played full time in college or the NFL. Graham has more experience at DT than LB. So Graham isn’t Kelly’s ideal size and doesn’t have the experience to play his new position.
What about all the good stats? As we all know, stats can be misleading. I decided to go re-watch several of Graham’s games from 2012. I wanted to take a fresh look at him and think about his fit in the new scheme.
While Graham was productive as a pass rusher last year, no one did anything special for him. He was almost always single-blocked. There were plenty of plays where TEs were assigned to block him. Compare this to the treatment that Trent Cole and Jason Babin got. Offenses gameplanned for them, in terms of playcalling and blocking.
Graham’s 2 best games were against Cincinnati and the second Dallas meeting. He went against a struggling Doug Free and Andre Smith. While Smith is a dominant run blocker, he is a mediocre pass blocker, which is part of why he sat on the free agent market so long this year. In those 2 games, Graham had 12 tackles, 4 sacks, and a FF. Take those games away and we’re talking about a different season.
I watched those games and Graham was terrific. I also watched the Tampa game. Graham had 2 solo tackles. He flushed Josh Freeman with a good inside move, which led to a sack by Cox. Beyond that, Graham was somewhat quiet.
We can’t get caught up in numbers. We must put Graham into the proper context. Just how good is he?
The biggest thing I look for in a pass rusher is whether the player is explosive. Graham isn’t. He wins with good burst and great leverage. He is very good with the bull rush. There are some plays when he’s able to get his hands in the chest of the blocker and jolt him. Graham can then get by the blocker. Graham uses the rip move very well, which ties in to his use of leverage. Graham tried spin moves in a couple of games and had mixed results.
One of Graham’s best assets is his motor. He doesn’t give up when initially blocked. He will fight to disengage from the blocker and then will chase the ball all over the field. He makes hustle plays.
Graham is a talented player and had a good season in 2012. That said, any talk of him being a crucial defensive player is premature. Graham showed good flashes last year. He must show that he can be a regular force in 2013. The coaches have him slated to be the backup SAM for now. Graham doesn’t have the cover skills or size for that role, but he’s there for now. Trent Cole is the Predator. Cole is coming off his worst season, but he has a terrific track record aside from 2012.
We’ll see how things end up in September, but the fact that Cole is projected ahead of Graham for now is very interesting. I know some of Brandon’s strongest supporters think Kelly and Bill Davis are either nuts or stupid. I think Kelly and Davis watched the tape. They saw Graham doing some good things, but not playing to the level that the PFF stats would lead you to believe.
I hope Graham emerges this year as a stud pass rusher and a guy that offenses have to fear every week. Nothing would make me happier. Sometimes I get accused of being anti-Graham, but that is completely untrue. I’ve been a big fan of his since he was at Michigan. Anyone who watched him in college loved him. He was a machine. Here is something I wrote back in March of 2010 (pre-draft):
“Brandon Graham is a player we all love. The question is how good he’ll be in the NFL. Brandon was great for Michigan this year and then looked dominant at the Senior Bowl. One concern I have is that he played in a system that allowed him to be on the move a lot. He slanted to the inside more than most DEs. That worked great for him, but NFL teams won’t always let their guys just attack upfield. I do have concerns about whether he is best suited for LB or DE. He’s more fast than quick. He makes a ton of hustle plays. He lacks ideal height or long arms. That all sounds like a LB.
4-3 teams have to really be thinking hard about Graham. He’s such a good player that you don’t want to overthink this and get lost in the measurables. The bottom line is that when you put on the Michigan tape you’ll see #55 playing in the backfield a lot of the game. That is the most important thing. I hope wherever Graham goes that he plays for a creative defensive coordinator who will adjust to Brandon’s skill set. He’s not a standard player, either in results or style.”
I feel pretty confident that Graham will get a chance to really show what he can do. His ACL injury is ancient history. Graham is coming off a good season. His confidence has to be pretty high. The new coaches may question Graham’s fit in the LB role, but there will be some situations where the Eagles run a 4-man line and Graham can get in a traditional DE spot. The Eagles would love to see Graham have a strong season and prove that he’s the disruptive force they hoped for on draft day in 2010.
One reason Graham may not be the Predator is that he has played mainly at LDE in college and the NFL. Graham is used to going up against RTs. There is generally a big difference in beating a RT and a LT. Graham is a physical run defender and plenty of run plays do come to the right side (LOLB/LDE). I think he’ll do a good job of setting the edge.
I’m really looking forward to seeing Graham play this year. I hope he tears it up and has a great year.
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While watching Graham, I also checked out Vinny Curry. You could really see that Curry was a rookie. He was thinking a lot out there and it led to him being hesitant on some plays and not attacking enough. You could also see that he must play stronger and more physically. There were a few times when TEs were able to get the best of him. Jason Witten downblocked on Curry and put him on the ground. It was funny to see that since Brandon Graham ate TEs up when they tried to block him. He used Witten as his own personal blocking sled and drove Jason backward regularly.
The point here isn’t that Curry is weak. He was just a rookie that was completely unsure of himself. That led to him being cautious rather than aggressively engaging blockers and attacking upfield. There were a few plays when Curry did let loose and he was impressive. The raw skills are there.
I must say that after watching him I think he should be playing LB and not 5-tech DE. Jerry Azzinaro coached him for a year at Marshall and knows what he’s doing, but to my eyes, he just looked more like a 3-4 LB. For now, I have put my total trust in Chip and the staff.
Geoff Mosher mentioned to me on Twitter that Curry was the backup RDE at practice on Monday. I think Curry will find some role on this team. He did everything at Marshall. He’s even got a bit of DT experience. Curry has the frame that Kelly likes. Now it is just a matter of finding the right spot for him.
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I watched a bit of Phillip Hunt. I’m really curious to know what Kelly thinks of him. Hunt is a shade under 6-1 (6005). He goes about 260 pounds. He never got on the field regularly under Jim Washburn. Hunt has shown good flashes, but has a total of 3 sacks in 2 years. Kelly wouldn’t have kept Hunt around if he didn’t think there was at least some chance that he could make the team. Hunt will need to look very good on STs and be disruptive on defense.