Defensive end Brandon Graham has always made people around him feel special. He greets everyone with a big, warm smile and an embrace that makes you feel like you've known him forever.
Graham's outward personality has not changed since he was the Eagles' top draft pick in 2010. But the peaks and valleys of his first three seasons in the NFL had caused the gregarious Graham to doubt himself.
"I was almost broken down, man," said Graham, following his career-best 2.5-sack performance Thursday night against Cincinnati.
The Eagles moved up in the first round of the 2010 NFL Draft to select the 6-2, 265-pound Graham, who was one of the most productive pass rushers in the University of Michigan's history. He finished second on the school's all-time list in sacks and tackles for loss. He was the first Michigan defensive player to earn team MVP honors twice.
Upon his arrival, teammates marveled at how advanced Graham's technique was. Graham was an opening day starter as a rookie. He recorded his first sack in his hometown of Detroit in Week 2 against the Lions that season. It was a promising rookie campaign that ended abruptly when he ruptured his ACL in the Week 14 game in Dallas. Graham finished the 2010 season with 3.0 sacks, 13 quarterback hurries and a pair of forced fumbles.
Since the injury was so late in the season, Graham was placed on the Physically Unable to Perform list to start the 2011 season. He made his season debut November 7 against Chicago and had three tackles. However, Graham suffered a rib injury and the knee was not quite right. Graham would only play two more games the rest of the season.
Even though he had the injury, Graham was criticized by fans and media for not producing as a first-round draft pick. To add fuel to the fire, Giants defensive end Jason Pierre-Paul, who was selected two spots after Graham, had 21 sacks in his first two seasons, earned All-Pro honors and helped the Giants win a Super Bowl.
"It was hard for me growing up, but going through injury and with fans calling you this and people saying all of this and all of this expectation. It was tough," Graham said. "It was very tough."
Graham never changed his disposition towards others. He channeled his aggression and used the criticism as fuel in his offseason workouts leading up to the 2012 season. Graham improved his diet, changed his workout habits and incorporated a boxing regimen into his routine.
For the first 10 games of this season, Graham worked in as a rotational defensive end. He had a half-sack against Arizona and on one play in New Orleans he sacked quarterback Drew Brees, forced a fumble and recovered it.
Graham finally got his long-awaited opportunity to be back in the starting lineup after Jason Babin was released. Graham quickly responded in Dallas on December 2 with his first career multi-sack game with 1.5 sacks and four quarterback hurries. On Thursday, Graham took his game to another level with 2.5 sacks and a forced fumble against Cincinnati.
"I knew it was coming one day. I knew my test was going to come and I'm happy that I handled it right and now I'm just making sure I just keep going, make sure I learn from it and take care of myself," Graham said.
"I didn't have a chance, but I always had to go from the ground up and make a name for myself. I don't have a problem with that. I go out there and just do my job and let everything else take care of itself. It's football. I know how to play. I've been playing it since I was seven. I know what I can do. I just had to prepare myself and get myself right to do what I can do. It's just relieving to finally be done with the rebuilding with my knee. That was the hardest thing."
Linebacker DeMeco Ryans has been in Graham's position before. The All-Pro linebacker suffered an Achilles injury in the middle of the 2010 season and it was fair to question whether he would ever get back to playing at an elite level. Ryans played in all 18 regular and postseason contests for Houston last season and in his first year with the Eagles he leads the team in tackles and has registered more tackles for loss than any defensive player in the Andy Reid era.
"Whenever you get back out there, you start to make the plays, the great plays that Brandon is making, you get that confidence back," Ryans said. "Now, you're seeing his confidence is there and he's rolling. He's hard to stop. He's a problem for a lot of offenses. It's fun to see. I enjoy watching him do what he's doing out there."
Yes, Graham has turned the corner and has been a bright spot for this team in an otherwise dark season. But Graham knows that there are those who will be waiting for him to slip up again.
"All I'm going to do is make sure I keep going because the first time I fall off that's the first time people are going to bring it back up," Graham said. "I have to make sure I do my job and my part and try to help the team win."
And all the while, Graham will do it with a smile on his face. He's still the same congenial character with the wide grin. He's now able to be the same way on the field as well.
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