The long, strange path of Brandon Graham, quietly one of the best players in Eagles history

Daniel Jones isn’t going to enjoy the next few seconds at the hands of Brandon Graham.
Daniel Jones isn’t going to enjoy the next few seconds at the hands of Brandon Graham.
Image: Getty Images

It wasn’t quite Eagles fans booing Donovan McNabb at the podium for the crime of not being Rickey Williams at the 1999 draft, but no one was happy with the Eagles’ first selection in the 2010 Draft, either.

Advertisement

They took defensive end Brandon Graham with the 13th pick. Still sitting there was Earl Thomas, a well-regarded safety out of Texas. The Eagles’ biggest need was free safety, as Brian Dawkins, the most beloved player in franchise history, had moved on the year before, and his absence was sorely felt.

The problem was taking a safety in the first round didn’t fit into the Eagles’ team-building philosophy. Their belief was, and still is, that you pay your quarterback, your top pass protectors (left and right tackles), and pass rushers. The Eagles weren’t satisfied with four good linemen, they wanted eight. As Andy Reid liked to say, “We want to throw fastballs at the offense.” Sometimes you pay for cornerbacks, very occasionally, wide receivers, and once in a while, a 26-year-old fireman. You don’t invest first-round picks and big-time free-agent money at linebacker, safety, running back, tight end, center or guard.

This philosophy largely worked, because it’s mostly smart. However, they overlooked the fact that this plan worked mostly because they got really lucky in getting a Hall of Fame-caliber safety in Dawkins in the second round, and having him man the middle of the field for 13 years. The loss of Dawkins and defensive coordinator Jim Johnson ruined the end of Andy Reid’s tenure in Philadelphia, and the Birds, who’d made five NFC Championship Games with Dawkins, didn’t return to the postseason until they went out and spent big money on safety Malcolm Jenkins.

That’s a long digression, but these wounds still run deep.

Brandon Graham was never a bad player. But he was never Earl Thomas. When a defensive end picked two spots after Graham, Jason-Pierre Paul, looked like he might be a transcendent star for a hot second with the division-rival Giants, that made two guys he had to hear about all the time. “We could have had Earl Thomas. We could have had JPP.”

There was a lost year in the 4-12 disaster of Andy Reid’s last season. There was the struggle for playing time under Chip Kelly, who had no allegiance to him and conspicuously had a problem with Black players on the Eagles. There was a switch from defensive end to linebacker in Kelly’s 3-4 defense.

Graham moved back to defensive end when Doug Pederson and Jim Schwartz took over, but moved again in a year from the left to right side.

Advertisement

Around this time, Graham, his career delayed by injuries, written off as a draft bust, going through three coaches and three position changes, emerged as one of the very best players in the league.

This achievement wasn’t heralded by Pro Bowls or endorsements. But this is about the time when serious analytics began its dissemination into the mainstream. Pro Football Focus ranked Graham as the 9th-best player in the 2016 season, in which he had just 5.5 sacks. But he was second in the league with 83 hurries.

Advertisement

From PFF:

Graham isn’t just a player that doesn’t convert [pressure into sacks] as well as the best players in that regard ... but he consistently converts at a lower rate than average, which is certainly not a good thing. The key to his game, though, is in appreciating that as a flaw that keeps him from the Defensive Player of the Year conversation, but not ignoring the staggering rate of production he has in spite of that flaw.

Graham is one of the league’s most consistently productive edge rushers, well deserving of his place on the PFF All-Pro team this year and at number nine in the Top 101, and he still has a very clear aspect of his game he can work on to get even better. That should concern anybody tasked with blocking him in 2017 and beyond.

Advertisement

It’s been basically four years of the same since then for Graham, who has developed into one of the most consistent and durable and crucial players on the team.

Oh yeah, there was also the most important defensive play in team history. Everyone thinks Super Bowl LII ended with Nick Foles throwing a TD to Zach Ertz.

Advertisement

But wait, are you kidding me? Tom Brady, on his most efficient day on Super Bowl Sunday, got the ball back after down 38-33 with 2:21 left. You like your chances in that spot?

Then Brandon Graham did this.

If there’s been one constant with the Eagles ever since the Dick Vermeil era, when they emerged from the primordial soup as a competitive franchise in the 1970s, it’s great defensive linemen and constant pass rush. That’s a bigger hallmark of the team than mobile quarterbacks (Randall Cunningham, Dononan McNabb and Michael Vick). There was Hall of Famer Claude Humphrey and Carl Hairston and Dennis Harrison. They were followed by the greatest DE of all time, Reggie White, and a mercurial, trash-talking defensive tackle in Jerome Brown who was honestly just as impactful in his tragically short career.

There was two-time All-Pro Clyde Simmons, who had 124 sacks in his career. There were big names like William Fuller, Hugh Douglas and Jevon Kearse, and underrated folk heroes like Andy Harmon, William Perry, Mike Golic and Hollis Thomas. High draft picks like Corey Simon and Fletcher Cox and fifth-round steals like Trent Cole.

Advertisement

On Sunday, the Eagles will play the Green Bay Packers, and, at 3-7-1, the Birds still have a chance in the NFC East. Brandon Graham will play in his 155th game for the Eagles, the most by any lineman.

Thomas will be a Hall of Famer and Graham won’t get past a preliminary selection process. But Graham is still producing, and he deserves a spot opposite Reggie on that all-time Eagles defense (on Madden, in heaven, or in the eternal sims of the future AI overlords).

Advertisement

Earl Thomas got cut after getting caught by his wife in an orgy with his brother, but he would just sit behind B-Dawk on that All-Eagles squad anyway.

Managing editor. Former N.Y. Daily Newser. Former broke poker player.