It's hard to think of too many players with stranger NFL career paths than Brandon Graham. Five years after being the No. 13 overall pick in the 2010 NFL Draft, Graham is projected to enter a season as a key starter on the depth chart for the first time.
"Yeah, I’m excited man," Graham said. "I’ve been through a lot but I’m just happy I fought through it at the right time. My biggest thing was "don’t break." And I was almost at that breaking point where it was just like, Man, stuff is not going right.'"
Graham has certainly faced a lot of challenges to get to this point. He suffered an ACL tear late in his rookie season that caused him to miss a significant amount of his sophomore campaign as well. His critics were quick to break out the "bust" label. Then in 2012, it got even worse. Graham hit what he calls the low point of his career.
"The low point was when [former Eagles defensive line coach Jim Washburn] was here. That was my low point. Because Wash would make you feel bad, like you can’t play at all. I think once they broke him up and they finally gave me the opportunity, I was kind of in a better mood of just trying to go out there and do what I can."
Washburn, who now serves as a defensive assistant with the Detroit Lions, was a heralded coach around the league but his coaching style was brutal. He was infamous for constantly swearing and being really hard on his players. Some players have thrived under his style. Others, like Graham, are better off without him. The former defensive end saw light at the end of the tunnel when the Eagles cut Jason Babin and forced Washburn to play him instead.
"I think what happened was when [Washburn] left, and then I took off for a minute, that kind of gave me hope that I could play in this league," Graham said. "You know, because you start to doubt yourself a little bit. Because the coaches get on you, 24/7. It was tough. I’m just happy that everything’s looking up right now."
Graham's self-admitted low point was hardly the end of his challenges, though. In 2013, Graham had to deal with the Eagles switching from a 4-3 defense to a 3-4 alignment. Many thought Graham would eventually be traded or leave to sign with a 4-3 team in free agency. At one point this offseason it looked like Graham might even sign with the New York Giants. But that never happened. After being a rotational player for the past two seasons, the Eagles re-signed Graham to take the place of the released Trent Cole
"Give Brandon a lot of credit," said Eagles outside linebacker coach Bill McGovern. "He acted on it about what he had to do about it. Changing, in terms of his body. He’s about 265 or so around that area. And he’s keeping that weight down. He’s done a great job in really changing his body. He’s out there on the field now play after play after play. He plays with a great deal of energy. I think that’s what you see. He’s really changed his body, he’s really taken the steps. You see it time and time again. If he sees something that needs to get changed, he’s addressing it. He’s not letting it sit and fester."
It'll be interesting to see how Graham handles a full-time starting role. He's really excelled as a rotational pass rusher in recent seasons. The 27-year-old Graham finished first overall in a Pro Football Focus stat called "Pass Rush Productivity", which measures pressure created on a per snap basis. Can he be effective with even more playing time?
Graham is looking forward to his newest career challenge more than ever.
"Man, I’m just excited. Hoo hoooo, this is going to be a good year, that’s all I’m going to say."