Remember back in the summer of 2008 when Joe Mays was a rookie MLB and flew all over the field making plays? He looked great…to outsiders. The coaching staff and his teammates knew that Mays wasn’t doing his job. He was running to the ball, but not playing his gaps. He got away with that while facing 3rd string competition. When he got on the field in the 2009 regular season, Mays looked completely lost. He had no discipline and wasn’t able to play well from a technical standpoint.
Preseason football offers a lot of fool’s gold.
Fans and some in the media will focus on results. That can be highly misleading. If Matt Barkley throws a bad pass, but the receiver makes an impressive grab…if a RB runs through tackles by 3rd stringers and delivers a long play…if a rusher blows by a bad blocker for a sack…these plays mean little to nothing. The preseason isn’t about results. The preseason is about evaluation. A player needs to show specific abilities and skills that the coaches can count on in the regular season, when results are the key.
A guy looking great in the preseason is like a baseball player being a star in AAA ball. It doesn’t guarantee he’ll be able to have that same success when facing the best of the best in a real game.
Right now Brandon Graham is the backup SAM. Some people watching the preseason games want to know why he’s just a backup. Graham has spent a lot of time in the backfield. He’s been disruptive. He’s been impressive.
The coaches are more mixed on Graham. He’s a LB now and not a DE. There are times when he still plays like a DE. Old instincts die hard. He played with more discipline against the Panthers, but he’s still a work in progress. Jim Washburn had Graham flying off the edge and focused only on the QB. “Play the run on the way to the QB” was the saying. Now Graham has to read run/pass and has a variety of responsibilities depending on the play.
If you watch Graham and Connor Barwin, you can see that Barwin is much more comfortable in the role. He has experience in the 3-4 and knows what he’s doing. Graham is still trying to adjust. I do give him credit that he’s doing things at full speed. Some players slow down and start thinking. Graham’s attitude is that if I’m going to make a mistake, I’ll do it at full speed and knock the crap out of somebody while doing it.
From a scouting standpoint, the tape is mixed. Graham is the team’s best pass rusher, but he is facing 2nd and 3rd string blockers right now. That does give him an advantage. He’s just better than they are. Graham is very quick off the ball. He plays with good leverage and is a powerful, physical player. He looks very awkward when dropping back. He had to drop into a zone vs the Panthers and it was ugly. He made Trent Cole look like Mikhail Baryshnikov. Graham doesn’t have good feet. He’s a bit stiff in the hips and is more of a straight-line player. This is fine at DE. OLBs need to turn and bend more as they play in space or on the move. There was a play in the Panthers game when Graham drove his blocker back to the QB. Derek Anderson then went to scramble to the outside of Graham. Graham was unable to turn and grab him. You could see the stiff hips on that play.
There is no disputing that Graham has a role on this team and can be somewhat of an impact player. The Eagles will be in the Nickel defense 40 to 50 percent of the time. Maybe more in select games. Graham should be the LDE in that unit the majority of the time. Graham needs to work on his OLB skills before he can challenge Barwin or Cole for a starting position.
One of the big disconnects right now is with how everyone rates Graham. PFF had Graham as the NFL’s most productive pass rusher in 2012. Some people read that and think Graham is an elite player or something special. No, he isn’t. I’ve watched those games over and over. Graham was productive, but he was facing RTs and not getting double-teamed or chip-blocked with regularity. Teams were not gameplanning on how to deal with Graham.
You want players who can win when they are given a fair situation like that. That’s a credit to the player and it means he’s doing his job. When we talk about someone being elite or a difference-maker, he must be a player that can really impact the game. Teams have to plan for him. The player must be able to beat top competition. He must be able to draw special attention and still be productive.
If the Eagles ran a 4-3 right now, Graham would be the starting LDE. I’d project him to have a good season, but not to be a special player. He’s just not such a force that I think he’s going to dominate no matter what. I do think Graham needs the right circumstances to be at his best.
I don’t know what Graham’s long term future in Philly is like, but I do think he can be a valuable player as a backup OLB and a key Nickel rusher this year. If he can make progress at OLB, then maybe he starts on the right side in 2014. He may not have the skills to make the transition at the level the Eagles want. This is more than just attitude and desire. Some players just don’t fit certain systems. We’ll see how things work out with Graham.
I have been a big fan of Graham’s since his amazing Senior year at Michigan. I loved it when the Eagles picked him and it would be great if he could stay here and develop into a key player in the new scheme. What I want and what I see aren’t always the same thing. Graham has a long way to go. One thing we do know, he’ll go at full speed.
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Last night I went back and re-watched the 3rd quarter of the Panthers game. I wanted to be very sure of my thoughts on Graham before writing this. A few other things stood out.
Antonio Dixon is a mess. I don’t know if he was just rusty or what, but he was very disappointing. He got little to no push. He wasn’t an anchor vs the run. There was one play that went to his right. He moved that way and eventually the blockers got him on the ground. That’s not good for a guy with his size and strength.
By comparison, Vinny Curry looked even better this time around. He used his hands very well. His rip move is a thing of beauty. He brings his outside arm and gets it into the block, then rips with the inside. And that rip is 100 mph. That’s an uppercut. It gets him by the blocker. Curry is violent and aggressive with his hands. He attacks blockers. He gets push on plays when he is blocked.
Chris McCoy jumps off the screen. He’s long, fast, quick, strong and agile. His burst really was impressive. These are physical traits, not just him getting the best of lesser competition. I don’t see how the Eagles don’t keep McCoy. I’d be shocked if he got cut and went unclaimed.
Kurt Coleman and Earl Wolff both played pretty well. They were in the right spots. Both made hustle tackles. Both had chances to cover slot receivers and did a solid job against them. Coleman played with more confidence since he’s a veteran, but Wolff is bigger and more athletic. Wolff’s tackling is a welcome sight after the last couple of years of erratic DB play. He’s strong and wraps up his targets.
I’ll save my thoughts on the offensive players for another post.
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Regarding my post on the 2010, 2011 drafts. I labeled those guys as underachievers. That isn’t true for all the players, just the classes in a general sense. Coleman is a guy who has overachieved.
And I totally acknowledge that injuries and coaching changes definitely hurt some of the players. The point wasn’t to rip the guys, but rather to show that if they can find a way to help the team this year, it will help the Eagles become a better team. If those players can’t become good backups or role players, the Eagles will be looking for outside help and there aren’t likely to be strong options. The best scenario is for the current guys to find their niche and help the team.