The Eagles moved up aggressively in last April's draft to go get defensive end Brandon Graham. They hoped he could be an impact book end to team with Trent Cole for several years. Graham looked very good in the spring and summer. He was named starting left end prior to the season and expectations for him were sky high.
Graham played well in the season opener. The stat sheet is empty, but ask the Green Bay blockers what they saw. Graham gave right tackle Mark Tauscher fits for parts of the game. Graham was quick off the edge, but also used a good bull rush. The Eagles put Graham at defensive tackle in some sets and he got the best of the right guard a few times. One of his pressures up the middle led to a poor throw that was intercepted. Graham didn't register a sack, but he got regular pressure.
The next week at Detroit Graham had a pair of tackles and got his first NFL sack. Interestingly, that came with him lined up on the inside at tackle. Graham didn't have the same kind of impact as in the opener, but did have a solid game. Unfortunately Graham hurt his shoulder late in the Eagles win.
That injury hampered him for the next couple of weeks. Graham did have some good moments against Jacksonville and Washington. He pressured Donovan McNabb into throwing an interception, but really struggled against the run. Overall, he wasn't as effective in those games. Graham lost his starting job. He responded with a sack and forced fumble against the Niners. He still wasn't back to his old form, but looked a bit better. A sprained ankle slowed him down against the Falcons and Titans.
The bye week was a godsend for Graham. He was able to rest up and get rejuvenated. The time off made a big difference. Graham played very well in the win over the Colts last Sunday. He had fresh legs, which certainly helped a lot. His shoulder was also in much better shape. That gave him good strength when power moves. Graham didn't sack Peyton Manning, but came close a couple of times and got good pressure off the left side.
So what do we make of Graham halfway through his rookie season? In a word, solid. We hoped he might be a spectacular rookie, the defensive version of DeSean Jackson and Jeremy Maclin. That hasn't happened. Graham has shown that he's a talented player. His limitations are based on experience and being healthy. He has 2 sacks and a forced fumble at midseason. Jerome McDougle finished his career with 3 sacks. While Graham isn't setting the world on fire, he has been a good part of the defensive line rotation. The Eagles are tied for 5th place in the league with 24 sacks.
I'm hoping that Graham will play well enough to put Juqua Parker back on the bench. Parker started the season red hot, but has cooled down since he's been on the field more. He had 4 sacks early on, but hasn't gotten to the quarterback in recent weeks. Parker is an excellent backup. He's effective as a starter, but thrives when coming off the bench. Maybe now that he and Graham will be really sharing snaps again Parker will break loose and start making plays. A big game or two from him would be very helpful down the stretch.
The important thing to remember with Graham is that he will get better with time. He's naturally gifted. He's athletic. He is also smart, hard working, and coachable. As he figures things out you will see his level of play go up. I'm not sure what his ceiling is right now. He flashes big time potential, but only for a snap or two at a time. I'm still waiting for a breakout game where we can see him at his best.
I know some people have expressed concern over him playing some snaps at defensive tackle. Graham isn't the biggest end so why move him inside? I think the Eagles are absolutely smart to put him in there. Remember, we're only talking about moving inside in passing situations. Graham played tackle in some passing situations at Michigan. This isn't some crazy, foreign concept to him. The Eagles worked him in there during the spring and summer. In some of the drills at Lehigh he was unblcockable in one-on-one matchups with guards. Graham is very quick off the ball. He stays low (the advantage of being short). He can attack straight upfield or use a spin move. Graham also uses his hands well. Graham has been disruptive when playing inside. As I noted above, that's where his first sack came.
In time I think Graham will develop into a regularly disruptive force off the edge. The only thing that has really slowed him down this year is injuries. Graham was very durable at Michigan so there is no reason to think he'll struggle with staying healthy. He might, of course. You can't really predict future injury status for a young player. For now, Graham is in good shape and ready to go. He's hungry to make plays and show Eagles fans what he can do. If Graham is able to play as well as he did last Sunday, he'll be very helpful in the push to make the playoffs.
Other Rookie Notes
* Kurt Coleman got his first substantial playing time last week and did fine. He didn't make many plays, but his solid coverage helped to limit big plays by the Colts. Coleman's job was to stay deep and keep things in front of him. That sounds easy, but think back to the Titans game. Nate Allen got sloppy and gave up one long touchdown that completely changed the game. Coleman is the likely starter this week against the Skins. I'm sure they will target him and try to burn him with some deep pass plays. Coleman will have all week to prepare and I expect him to hold up just fine. He doesn't have the ball skills that Allen does, but Coleman should be assignment sound. At safety that means being in the right position, staying deeper than the deepest, and tackling well.
* Keenan Clayton got the first playing time of his career. He played some safety and some linebacker. The Eagles coaches love his athleticism and versatility. He didn't look lost on Sunday, which is always a good sign. I'm interested to see if he stays on the field. The Colts were a passing team so Clayton fit that gameplan well. The Skins are more of a running team. They still throw quite a bit, but do so from base sets more than three and four receiver sets.