Can Brandon Graham Make the Transition to Linebacker?
For former first-round pick Brandon Graham to make progress in his football career, he may have to take a few steps back.
That has nothing to do with the injuries that he has had to overcome the past few seasons and everything to do with the fact that the 2010 first-round pick is now spending some time at a new position this training camp.
Graham as a linebacker is no longer a theoretical exercise. It's happening on a daily basis at training camp, continuing to run with the second-team defense at Eagles training camp in first-year coordinator Billy Davis' new 3-4 scheme.
It's an experiment that is as intriguing as it is uncertain, Graham is down to 264 pounds and was Philadelphia's best pass rusher on a per-play basis last season but seems somewhat out-of-place in this new look defense that also has former defensive end Trent Cole playing linebacker.
It's possible to look at the situation and see the Eagles using this year as a learning experience for Graham and then giving Philadelphia's defense a outside pass rusher next season. It's also just as easy to look at the scouting report on Graham and wonder if he won't be back at defensive end at some point this season, since the Eagles are pretty thin at that position and could be looking for a way to get Graham on the field more.
The Eagles traded up to draft Graham to do one thing: rush the passer. After exploding down the stretch of 2012, recording four sacks, 23 tackles, and a forced fumble over the final five games, the team is now asking him to move to a position that will require him to drop back in coverage more frequently, something he hasn't done since he was at Michigan.
So is the move a sign Graham can be an every-down linebacker in this scheme? GM Howie Roseman said last month he's confident Graham can make the switch.
"He can rush the passer. He can hold the edge. He can play in space,' explained Roseman. "I think that's a transition Brandon can do."
Could be. It could also be a move that allows the Eagles to put another pass rusher on the field, thereby addressing what was the single biggest weakness of this team last season.
Graham has been encouraged by his progress so far.
"Right now, I'm just learning everything," Graham told the Eagles website. "Just trying to get better with my technique because I know I can rush the passer, I know I can do all those things, but I'm trying to work (on) what I can (do) in space."
Graham also tried to downplay the significance of the switch from the defensive end spot to the linebacker spot known as Sam.
"Change is always difficult because you don't know how it's going to go, but so far, so good," Graham told Philadelphiaeagles.com. "I think (the coaches) have a real good plan for me, they know what I can do. I'm just adding on to what I did last year and trying to start off this year and keep it rolling. I'm not worried about it at all. I was nervous for the change, but now I feel good."
But Graham will have to drop into coverage more often, and there's a legitimate question if he'll be able to operate in space, knowing how far he should drop and who he must cover, but one thing is certain he still will be rushing the passer.
"I think it'll be 50/50, just depends on the packages and what's going on during the game, what (Davis) needs." explained Graham on the Eagles website. "He might have us (Graham, Trent Cole and Connor Barwin) all out there, you never know. I can play any position on the line, outside, the nose. Whatever they want to do, I'm just going to go out there and play ... being able to go out there and do whatever they need me to do."
The past coaching played him a shot at defensive end, where the instructions were as simple as it gets in football: See the quarterback, chase the quarterback and hopefully hit the quarterback. He excelled in college at Michigan and then in Philadelphia late last season - but can he play linebacker in the NFL?
"I think he can do that," Roseman said of Graham making the change to linebacker
Now, we'll see how it translates in pads at full speed. One thing that's clear is that while Graham will be changing positions, he's going to be on the field a lot in August, battling Cole and Connor Barwin for time.
It's too early to offer any conclusions on the move, only to say that this is something worth watching. If it works, Philadelphia could have a disruptive pass rusher who's very good at getting to the quarterback. If it doesn't, it creates the possibility that a former first-round pick could get lost on the depth chart.
Unless, that is, Graham shows he's capable of moving back to linebacker, which would really allow him to take a step forward in Philadelphia's defense.