The leap Brandon Graham made in the months leading into 2014 was noticeable, so much so that his production last season was not a shock at all to the coaching staff. That's part of the reason the Eagles are so excited to have Graham back, having agreed to terms on a four-year contract with him on Monday.
Playing less than 50 percent of the team's defensive snaps (43 percent to be exact, with 499 snaps of a total of 1,158 total defensive snaps), Graham recorded 13.5 tackles for loss (second on team), 5.5 quarterback sacks (fourth on team) and 18 quarterback hurries (third on team). Graham also played with great tenacity, toughness and energy and opened eyes. Graham was also a key member of Dave Fipp's league-best special teams with 8 tackles, tying for fifth most on the team.
In short, Brandon Graham arrived in 2014.
"He's one of the guys we are really excited about because he made such an investment in the offseason to improve himself and get ready for the season has paid off," outside linebackers coach Bill McGovern said during the 2014 season. "His approach, his demeanor and his conditioning this season has helped him contribute so much to our defense. You see now a player who bought into what we are doing in every way and who has played well not only on defense but on special teams. He plays both linebacker spots for us, he plays with his hand on the ground and he plays away from the ball and he fits what we're doing."
Graham was reportedly a hot commodity during the pre-free agency period when teams were permitted to talk to players' agents and teams like the Giants, Dolphins and Titans reportedly made inquiries and, in fact, offers. But the Eagles made sure Graham never made it to free agency by getting the deal done on Monday.
In his sixth season, then, after Philadelphia made him a No. 1 pick in the 2010 draft, Graham is primed to be a full-time starter at outside linebacker opposite Connor Barwin. Graham began his career with his hand in the dirt playing as a 4-3 defensive end and made the transition to linebacker when the Eagles changed defensive schemes prior to 2013.
The idea that it would be a simple transition was foolhardy and the Eagles made sure to give Graham time to make the adjustment.
He did so with flying colors in 2014.
On Monday, the Eagles agreed to terms on a four-year contract with LB Brandon Graham. Look at some of his top moments as an Eagle ...
"From a player's perspective, when you put your hand on the ground to start, you basically know you're going forward 99 percent of the time," McGovern said of the change in positions. "Your eye level is down and you're looking at the hip of the offensive tackle and then you see the ball. When you're standing up, you're off the line of scrimmage and your vision area expands.
"You don't want your eyes to drift and you don't want your eyes to see different things than they should see and giving a player false reads."
Basically, Graham trusted his eyes in Year 2 as an outside linebacker and his production grew accordingly. In his lone start of 2014, Graham had six tackles and four quarterback hurries at Washington and stood out to the coaching staff.
With longtime Eagle Trent Cole - the starter ahead of Graham in 2013 and 2014 on the outside - testing the free agent market and making visits, Graham gets the chance to show he is ready to explode.
Retaining Graham is a big piece for a defense that released Cole and cornerback Cary Williams in the last couple of weeks and that has starting safety Nate Allen and starting cornerback Bradley Fletcher prepared to test free agency on Tuesday at 4 p.m.
Graham will have to become accustomed to the full-time load, but he's certainly come a long, long way in terms of his comfort in the scheme and his confidence in coverage. Rushing the quarterback has always been Graham's strong suit and now that he's completely healthy after suffering a season-ending knee injury in his rookie season that limited Graham to 13 games in 2010 and only 3 games played in 2011, he is one of those players who could really see a jump in production getting full-game snaps.
His story is one of perseverance – overcoming the knee injury as a rookie, learning how to play a new position in the NFL in his third season – and Graham decided that Philadelphia and this defense was the right place for him to be.
He's got his shot to be a starter and a standout. The Eagles want to see him take another step and a half forward as a complete linebacker. He'll have that chance with a new contract and a new level of security and confidence as the Eagles satisfy a need, and a key one at that, with an edge linebacker just coming into his own in his sixth NFL season.