The Philadelphia Eagles moved up 11 spots in the 2010 draft to No. 13 overall, sending their first-round pick plus a pair of third-rounders to the Denver Broncos to select defensive end Brandon Graham. Today, it serves as an example of how even the best-laid plans often go awry.
Four years later, Graham is still a reserve. The Eagles’ shift from a 4-3 defense to a 3-4 alignment forced a position change to outside linebacker, where he’s arguably a questionable fit at best. He could eventually wind up walking away a free agent.
Sometimes, you just have to know when to cut your losses. Despite his limited role in the defense, Graham has demonstrated a consistent ability to rush the passer. The 25-year-old could have value to another team, perhaps even start in a 4-3 defense.
If the Eagles can land even a mid-round pick in a trade for Graham, they should probably consider taking it and moving on.
That may not sound like a very enticing return on their investment, but it’s better than nothing. Graham has made his desire to be a starter known, which means barring some changes to the depth chart, he is unlikely to return to Philadelphia when his contract is up.
Nor are the Birds likely to make much of an effort to re-sign Graham. The sense around the NFL is outside linebacker will be one of the front office’s top priorities in this year’s draft, which would seem to indicate the organization is looking for a better fit.
Thanks in part to a record number of underclassmen putting their names in the hat, this looks like a fairly deep draft. Adding a mid-round pick for a departing player has the potential to net a solid contributor in return, perhaps even a future starter.
If Graham were on the block, there would most definitely be suitors. His $3.3 million cap figure in ’14 is a tad high for backup but relatively cheap for a starter. It would also give his new team at least a season to evaluate whether or not they want to offer a contract extension.
Graham recorded just 3.5 sacks in ’13, but while playing on roughly a quarter of the defensive snaps. According to metrics site Pro Football Focus (subscription only), Graham ranked seventh among all 3-4 outside linebackers that played at least 25 percent of the time in pass rush productivity—a formula that combines sacks, hits and hurries—and sixth in run-stop percentage.
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Pro Football Focus (subscription)
The numbers might lead one to wonder why the Eagles would be in a hurry to part with such a productive player for so little in return. Graham can rush the passer in any scheme, that much is clear.
And one thing a Graham trade does not accomplish is free up cap space. As far as the league is concerned, Philadelphia will be on the hook for that money regardless of where he’s playing in ’14.
That being said, the coaching staff would likely prefer somebody with a little more versatility for that role. Also, Graham is thoroughly blocked for now by Trent Cole on the depth chart, with whom the team is stuck through this season for cap reasons.
That’s just the kind of luck this kid has had.
Graham was enjoying a nice rookie season back in 2010 when a torn ACL struck. The injury required microfracture surgery, which has a significantly longer recovery time.
Graham wasn’t back up to full speed until 2012, but by then the Birds had hedged their bets, signing defensive end Jason Babin to a free-agent contract the previous summer. Babin was coming off of a Pro Bowl campaign and combined with Cole to hold Graham down the depth chart.
Graham wound up starting the final six games in ’12, racking up 4.0 of his 5.5 sacks for the year.
Last offseason, Andy Reid was fired as head coach and replaced by Chip Kelly, who favors a 3-4 defense. That prompted the position change for Graham, and the signing of Connor Barwin, just the latest impediments to his playing time.
Now it looks like the Eagles are destined to use an early draft pick on an outside linebacker in the upcoming draft, likely somebody who will be expected to ascend to a starting job by next season. There are only so many roadblocks you can put in front of one person before it’s time for a change of scenery.
At this point, it seems as if Graham is destined to go down as a bust in Philly. He’ll only be 26 this year though, and still has a lot to offer a team in the right situation. It doesn’t have to be a wasted selection.
Ideally, Graham would have every opportunity to pan out for the Birds, but the writing is already on the wall. The Eagles should make it known he’s available and see what kind of offers come rolling in.