Let's take another look at our first-round pick, defensive end Brandon Graham from Michigan.
I went back and reviewed some of his game tapes from the 2009 season to get an even better feel for him. We all know he's a really talented player, but what can he specifically do for us.
Graham is a natural pass rusher and that is the primary reason we went after him. He has the burst off the ball that is needed to regularly get by offensive tackles. One of the things that makes him special is that he can turn the corner (or "flatten out" in football terms). Think about Chris Clemons. Remember all the times we'd see him fly upfield, but he was just going straight? Graham is one of the pass rushers that can get upfield and then make the turn toward the quarterback in one fluid motion.
We all know that Graham lacks ideal height at 6-1. What some people don't realize is that his size actually helps him when it comes to rushing the passer. One of the reasons he's able to turn the corner as well as he does is because of his height. The taller a player is the less body control he's going to have. Think about cars. A sports car will handle better than a station wagon (assuming those things still exist today). Graham's compact build gives him excellent body control.
Another key factor in turning the corner is the fact that he stays low. Part of this is due to his size, but there are other reasons. Some coach obviously made it clear to Graham that he had to stay low and this lesson stuck with him. Graham isn't big enough to beat guys straight up. He's got to play with good leverage. Graham also has good flexibility and bends when he plays. Some guys are stiff and upright. Those players are easy to block. Graham gets as low as he can so that tackles have to reach down and work hard to try and get their hands on him.
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Good pass rushers use their hands well and Graham is no exception. Hands are important for a few reasons. First, the rusher wants to keep the blocker's hands off of him. That simply makes the rusher's job that much easier. If he can't use his hands to block, an offensive tackle quickly becomes a blocking dummy that the rusher just has to get around. Also, offensive linemen have one strange habit. If you can get hold of their hands, their feet tend to freeze. Pass rushers know this and love to try to do it. Finally, a pass rusher can use his hands to propel himself by the blocker. He can pull on the blocker to build momentum as he tries to go by. The rusher can also use his hands to push off the blocker once he is even with or by the blocker. Remember, a sack takes place in a matter of two to four seconds usually. If a move or trick can give a rusher even a slight advantage, it can make the difference in getting to the quarterback versus just getting near him.
Graham is both quick and fast on the move. This becomes important when he's past the blocker and is closing in on the quarterback. Players who rack up sacks have closing speed. At a certain point, the quarterback sees the rusher and has to act. If the rusher is able to close ground quickly, the quarterback won't be able to get the pass off or evade the sack. Graham consistently got to the passer in college. Over the last three seasons he accumulated 29 sacks. That's impressive.
Getting sacks now is harder than any time in the last 30 years in college football. Sure, teams pass more than ever, but so many teams run the spread offense that it makes it difficult to consistently get to the quarterback. The spread is designed to get the ball away quickly and efficiently. Also, offensive linemen get better each year at pass blocking. The passing game has crept down into youth football. Players no longer get to college and see a passing attack for the first time (as was the general case in my generation).
Think about some of the players that Graham had to face in the last three years. Iowa left tackle Bryan Bulaga was a first-round pick by the Packers this year. Indiana left tackle Rodger Saffold was the first pick of the second round and is now a Ram. Graham faced Gabe Carimi at times, a left tackle from Wisconsin who should be a high pick next year. Graham faced solid blockers like Sam Young, Zane Beadles, T.J. Lang, Kyle Calloway, Xavier Fulton, Fenuki Tupou and Alex Boone.
|Tommy Lawlor, goeagles99 on the Discussion Boards, is an amateur football scout and devoted Eagles fan. He's followed the team for almost 20 years. Tommy has been trained by an NFL scout in the art of scouting and player evaluation and runs www.scoutsnotebook.com.|
At the college level, Graham was a tremendous player and outstanding pass rusher. The Eagles coveted his ability to get to the quarterback. They obviously felt that his skill set is legitimate and will translate to the NFL. Notice that as I broke down Graham's qualities, I wasn't focused on one thing. He didn't just use speed. He didn't just use skill. He wasn't overwhelming guys with size. Graham is the total package. He has some skill in terms of beating blocks. He has the burst. He has the speed and quickness.
The Eagles are projecting Graham to the left side. He spent most of his time there in college, but did play plenty of snaps on the right side. Michigan kept him on the move so that teams couldn't count on where he'd line up. Graham looked comfortable on both sides. I really never developed a sense that he is best suited to one side or the other. I think we're putting him on the left for now due to the presence of some guy named Trent Cole. Graham could slide over to that spot if needed.
One trait that Cole and Graham share is their relentless style of play. Both guys go after the quarterback or the ball as if it is the most important thing in the world. I love that. You see some gifted rushers who have size and athletic ability, but don't play with any sense of desperation. That can work at wide receiver, but it will not at defensive end. Rookie Carlos Dunlap has good potential, but never showed a great motor at Florida. That is one of the reasons he slid to the Bengals in the late second round. The Eagles went for Graham early in part because they know effort will never be a concern.
The main question a lot of fans have with Graham is whether he can be a good run defender. This is a legitimate concern and something that we'll all have to watch for. As I re-watched the Michigan tapes, I tried to focus on run plays more than pass plays to see if I could really get an idea how Graham will handle the run for us. I'm still not sure.
The biggest factor is Michigan's style of defense. They have their linemen attack upfield on virtually every snap. Graham was great at this. Whether slanting to the inside or just firing upfield, he lived behind the line-of-scrimmage in 2008 and 2009. He totaled 46 tackles-for-loss in those years. The problem with this is that we ask our ends to go upfield under control so that they play the run on the way to the quarterback. That means Graham will have to be more under control and will have to adjust the way he plays.
Everyone wants to know if Graham can hold at the point of attack. This is when a running play comes right at a defensive lineman. It is the lineman's job to stuff the blocker and hold his ground, so that the other defenders can get to the runner. This is tough on smaller linemen.
Graham didn't have to hold the point on many run plays in college. He did show some potential in this area in a few games. Graham uses his hands well, as I already mentioned. This is important in run defense as well as getting after the quarterback. The goal is different, of course. The defensive end isn't looking to get past the blocker so much as he is trying to control the blocker. Technique becomes critical in run defense. The blocker is almost always going to be bigger. The smaller man has to do the little things right in order to win the battle. Staying square to the line of scrimmage is very important. The second a defensive lineman turns his shoulders he gets off balance and loses his power. He is then in position to be driven inside or out. Graham tends to stay square when engaging blockers on plays that come to his side.
While Graham's size isn't ideal, he does have a good body type in some ways. He has a squatty, thick build. Ricky Sapp is 6-4 and 252 pounds. Graham is 6-1 and 268. He has a thicker, more powerful build than Sapp does. When Graham stays square and plays with good leverage, he is tough to move off the ball. Obviously we'd all love it if Graham had a bigger frame and longer arms, but at least he has the right build to be effective for a shorter type of end.
Graham can learn a lot from watching and talking to Juqua Parker, the incumbent left end. Parker lists at 6-2 and 250 pounds. He is a better run defender than he gets credit for. He'll get moved off the ball at times, but also has some real good moments. Parker made some huge plays in the playoff win over the Giants following the 2008 season. Good run defense isn't about sheer size and strength. You need technique, leverage, effort and intensity. It helps to be big and strong, but that's not the only way to get the job done.
I understand the concerns about Graham and how he'll hold up at left end. He can't just show up on passing downs. Graham has got to do the dirty work on run plays that come to his side. I think he'll be outstanding on plays that go away from him. His speed and motor will help him to chase down his share of runs from the backside. I was hoping that re-watching the games would answer some questions about run defense, but it really didn't. Graham was great in his college system, but what we do is very different. We'll just have to wait and see how he adjusts to our scheme and the NFL.
I do like Graham quite a bit. I put a lot of value on effort and production, two areas where Graham was outstanding. One of the best compliments you can give to a player is to say he "shows up on tape." Sometimes you look at the stat sheet and get impressed, but the game tape isn't nearly as good. That is not the case with Graham. He absolutely shows up on game tape. I'm really looking forward to see what he does up at Lehigh and in the preseason. That will give us a strong hint as to whether he's the real deal.
Graham was great at Michigan. He was great at Senior Bowl week. He did very well at the Scouting Combine. He looked good this spring in the OTAs. Graham has passed every test so far. Let's hope that trend continues. Do try to keep expectations somewhat realistic. Graham probably won't start all year, but he should challenge for a starting role at some point. I do expect him to be a good situational player from day one. That will be important if the Eagles want to be a top-10 defense this year.