Head coach Andy Reid emphasized Tuesday that the team's release of defensive end Jason Babin cleared the way for the Eagles' young defensive ends to receive more playing time over the final five games of the season. The primary beneficiaries of that increased playing time are a pair of 24-year-olds, 2010 first-round pick Brandon Graham and 2012 second-round pick Vinny Curry.
Through 11 games, Babin led the Eagles with 5.5 sacks, playing 60.3 percent of the team's defensive snaps. Graham, who has 1.5 sacks, has played 28.5 percent of the Eagles' snaps on defense, while Curry only played in his first regular season game last Monday night, notching 21 snaps in his debut. Clearly, both players are now in line to play a lot more before season's end.
"It sucks because you don't want to see anybody leave, but I'm taking this opportunity to go out there and show what I can do," said Graham. "It's the beast of the business and nobody knows the decisions on why they made it, but I'm just going to take full advantage and go out there and work hard, play hard these last five games.
"My confidence even more just boosted knowing that this is my shot, this is what I asked for, this is what I wanted. Now it's here and I've got to take full advantage."
Graham, who is expected to start in Babin's place at left defensive end, should have reason to feel confident. While his sack numbers don't jump off the page, he's created a lot of pressure as a pass rusher this season. According to ProFootballFocus, in fact, Graham actually has the highest grade of any defensive player, let alone defensive lineman, based largely on his 14.4 rating as a pass rusher (which ranks seventh in the league among 4-3 defensive ends). Graham, though, isn't content with almost getting to the quarterback.
"Numbers and production," he said. "I can't just get to the quarterback, I have to get him. I have to play good on the run and that's what I'm working on all this week. I'm going to do extra sprints to make sure that I'm conditioned right, get myself together so I'll be ready for Dallas.
For Curry, having the opportunity to play means even more after he sat the first 10 games of the season on the inactive list.
"Us guys as young guys are just going to have to step up," said Curry. "Obviously (coach Reid) is leaning on us to do our part and hold up our end of the bargain.
"It means a lot. It kind of gives you that urge to go even harder in practice."
Over the final five games, the Eagles will face offenses with varying level of success in protecting the quarterback. This week's opponent, the Dallas Cowboys, rank 12th in the league in sacks allowed per pass attempt. Two of the opponents, the New York Giants and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, rank first and fifth in the league, respectively. Meanwhile, the Cincinnati Bengals (19th) and Washington Redskins (27th) are on the lower end of the spectrum. The final five games should provide Graham and Curry plenty of opportunities to continue their development with game reps, but it will also give the Eagles a better chance to evaluate Graham and Curry with an eye toward the future.
But Graham and Curry have already endeared themselves to their teammates. Pro Bowl defensive end Trent Cole, who was one of Babin's closest friends on the team, raved about the rookie's future.
"He's going to be a great player," Cole said of Curry. "I see a lot of potential in him. As he progresses and gets time to get in there and play, he's going to be an impact for our team."
As Curry continues to adjust to regular season playing speed, he had to remind himself not to try to do too much, "otherwise you'll be back on the bench." Though he's cognizant of that, Curry's fellow rookie defensive lineman said that Curry did get a little too amped up prior to his debut on Monday night.
"It was great," said Fletcher Cox. "Vinny and I ride down to every home game. He was jacked. He was ready. He was excited. I was excited for him. I think one time he got too excited in the locker room. I told him to just calm down, his chance was coming. I think Vinny did a great job with it being his first game since college."
Now, Curry and Graham just have to keep it up with increased reps knowing that they're even more under the microscope. But rest assured there's no lack of motivation.
"Everybody right now is fighting with their pride," said Graham. "It's all about pride right now and how we're going to finish these last five games. I know I have pride and I know my teammates do, so we're going to go out there and give it our all and whatever happens happens."