— In a sense, Philadelphia Eagles linebacker Brandon Graham has been waiting four years for this: A chance to master an NFL system and a position that features some continuity. Drafted in the first round in 2010 as a defensive end, he hasn't had it until now.
A knee injury late in his rookie season landed him on the injured reserve list and lingered through the following season as well, when a new coordinator (Juan Castillo) and a new line coach (Jim Washburn) made some radical changes.
Then, after closing his third season with 4 sacks in a span of six straight starts, the Eagles made a head-coaching switch that brought a whole new challenge for him: learning to play outside linebacker in the 3-4 they were committed to switching to, despite all the 4-3 personnel they inherited.
For Graham, it was another new start that might have been tougher than being a rookie. He was asked to drop into coverage more routinely than he did in the occasional zone-blitz schemes of a 4-3, and to cover some tight ends and running backs one-on-one. But he persevered and spent a full season behind fellow LB apprentice Trent Cole, accumulating 23 tackles and 4 sacks.
Now, as he gets set to dig into a more stable system in a more stable situation, he at least has a chance to provide some sustained excellence for the first time in his pro career.
Graham came off the practice field at training camp on Sunday more anxious than ever to start going full metal jacket. That happens today, when the players put on all their pads for the first time at a public practice at Lincoln Financial Field.
"I'm feeling good, man," he said. "I mean, I'm running around pretty good. But we'll know [Monday] when the pads get on. I got a feeling, but I mean, I really don't know. Just make sure you tune in and watch."
Graham knows that this is probably his last year to make a jump up into the elite class of this defense. If he doesn't, he almost certainly will have to start all over again somewhere else in 2015.
Needless to say, it's something he's trying desperately to avoid.
"I feel a lot more comfortable," Graham said. "I know what the coaches are looking for, so now it's on me. I'm just excited to go out there tomorrow and really show the fans and everybody what we've been doing when we have the pads on now."
Before practice, defensive coordinator Billy Davis praised his entire group for the progress it made in the offseason but also proclaimed all starting jobs open.
"I think the biggest thing you see is a year ago, you saw more assignment football," he said. "Guys were studying hard to know their assignment, what was asked of them. And they were trying real hard to get to their assignment and maybe not understanding their whole picture of how they exactly fit with their teammates and how it all came together. It's a learning curve, and you've got to start at the bottom and learn yours first and then you spread out and learn around yours.
"We've had an awesome offseason. Not only our attendance but the participation and effort that went into the meeting time and everything else. I think our guys have a much better understanding of not only their assignment, I think they feel the whole package now, the whole defense, how they fit, why their teammates rely on them to do a certain technique we are asking them to do or align in a certain way. I think all of that has grown and will make the package stronger."
Last season, Davis created a "predator" role for Cole and Graham, who were more used to just attacking the quarterback on pass plays as ends. So that continued to be their main responsibility as linebackers.
But in a perfect world, Davis would love to have a "jack" like Connor Barwin, who can rush the passer, drop into coverage and defend the run with equal aplomb, on both sides of the defense.
That's why they drafted Marcus Smith in the first round this year. But until he develops — he's still running with the third team — the more Graham proves he can do in his new position, the less predictable the defense will be and the more creative Davis can be with his calls.
That obviously would bode well for the man who enters his fifth season still in search of a niche.
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