[BLG Note: Please welcome BGN’s newest writer: Sean Cottrell. Follow him on Twitter: @PhllyDraft.]
When Brandon Graham posted a video on Instagram of him arriving to the NovaCare Complex on Tuesday for voluntary workouts, the Philadelphia Eagles fan base let out a collective sigh of relief. Heading into Doug Pederson and Carson Wentz’s second season, a distraction is the last thing this team needs. More than that, though, Graham was a key contributor for the Eagles’ defense in 2016 and would leave a major void along the defensive line were he to miss any time in 2017.
Graham was arguably the most impactful player on the Eagles’ defense last season. The key word though, is “arguably” because the topic created quite the argument last week among Eagles fans. Graham finished the 2016 season with only five and ½ sacks though. Was he really the most impactful player? Is a five and ½ sack player really that important to this defense?
The answer to both of those questions is a resounding YES.
Again, YES! Let’s explore why.
Disruption Equals Production
If you read or listen to any of the work that Josh Norris of Rotoworld.com does during each draft season, you will hear him say “disruption equals production” constantly in regards to the evaluation of defensive lineman. Since sacks were first recorded as a defensive statistic in 1982, they have become the primary benchmark for the performance of defensive lineman. Like many statistics in football, however, much of the context that accompanies this statistic has been lost over time and sacks have become the primary, and sometimes, the only benchmark for these players.
In reality, though, a sack is just one of many outcomes to the disruption caused by a defensive lineman. Many of the variables that contribute to a sack on any given play, such as the protection call, quarterback movement or secondary play is out of the defender’s control. The only thing that he can control is his ability to defeat his man and disrupt the play. The more he is able to disrupt the play, the more likely it will be that the other variables fall in line and he gets his sack. Even if the other variables never line up, the overall defense still benefits greatly from the disruption he has caused. This is what Norris means when he says “disruption equals production”.
We have all heard hurries or pressures thrown around as alternative measures for evaluating pass rushers. According to Pro Football Focus (PFF), Graham finished the 2016 season with 83 total pressures, second only to Khalil Mack. Regardless of what you think about PFF’s methodologies, this is a relatively objective measurement and doesn’t require incredible football acumen to gather. The problem with pressures, though, is that they do not necessarily end a play. The number of completions, yards, touchdowns, sacks and interceptions all have a tangible value. We can clearly and easily understand how they impact a game. Pressures or hurries on the other hand, don’t have that clear, tangible value. As a result, it is more difficult to place a value on Graham’s 83 pressures.
But, let’s give it a try.
All offenses, or at least portions of all offenses in the NFL are predicated on timing. When a quarterback receives the ball from under center, his steps are timed up perfectly with the route of the wide receivers in his progression. Whether it be a three, five or seven step drop, when the quarterback plants his back foot, the throw is timed up perfectly to hit the receiver just as he breaks on his route. If the first option is not there, the quarterback will hitch and move to the next man in his progression, and potentially a third or fourth. All of these routes in the progression are also timed perfectly with the quarterback’s drop and footwork.
As you can imagine, with the delicate time constraints within a play, anything that delays or takes a quarterback away from reading his progressions, can have a devastating effect. Disrupting the timing on the first read could derail the timing on the second or third progression and perhaps even the protection that was called as well. In addition, the route structure of each play is designed so that the quarterback doesn’t have to drastically alter his field of vision as he goes through his progressions. Getting into the backfield early and moving the quarterback from his platform forces him to read the defense from a different field of vision and make a throw from an awkward position. Put simply, disruption forces the offense to operate in an environment they don’t want to. Just like in college basketball where forcing a high-octane offense to play slow or forcing a slow, methodical Princeton offense to play fast can have a devastating impact, the same is true for an NFL offense working outside of its comfort zone.
As pointed out earlier by the PFF pressure statistic, Graham did this often in 2016. Here are just a few examples of his disruption that didn’t show up on the score sheet.
On the first play versus Minnesota, Graham beats right tackle T.J. Clemmings, gets a hit on Sam Bradford and forces the interception in the end zone.
On the next play versus Dallas, Graham swats left tackle Doug Free’s arms, beats him clean off the edge and gets a hit on Dak Prescott which results in an incompletion.
Next, Graham forces another incompletion, this time versus the Giants when he beats tackle Bobby Hart inside, gets right in Eli Manning’s face and forces him to throw the ball away.
Again versus Hart, Graham beats him around the edge and forces Manning to move off of his platform, stepping up and making an inaccurate throw that was intercepted by Malcolm Jenkins and returned for a touchdown. Another pretty big play but no credit on the stat sheet.
On the last play versus the Giants, Graham beats who else but Bobby Hart again, brings Manning to the ground but doesn’t get credit for the sack as it was called an incompletion. This also happened to be late in the fourth quarter with the Eagles holding onto a slim lead.
On the next two plays versus the Redskins, Graham causes the initial disruption that throws off the play and ultimately results in the sack of Kirk Cousins. Graham was the direct cause of both of these sacks and was credited with neither of them. On the first one, he drives right tackle Morgan Moses straight back into Cousins’ lap which allows Cox to pick up the sack.
On the second one, the very next play, Graham wins the edge, forcing Cousins to step right into the teeth of Cox and Bennie Logan.
Finding plays in which Graham made a significant impact was like looking for a skyscraper in a small farm town in Idaho. There were several other plays I could’ve chosen from in literally any game but I had to narrow it down. Many of the plays also occurred late or in key moments of games. What did Sidney Jones say about big time players and big time plays again?
Adding Context to Graham’s Season
As you add more and more context to Graham’s situation in 2016, the amount of chaos he created becomes that much more impressive. One of the most understated advantages that an offense has is unpredictability. An offense that is appropriately balanced between run and pass will keep a defense on its toes. Alternatively, when a team is nursing a large lead late in the game and its opponent is forced to throw the ball, it creates a level of predictability for the defense to take advantage of. This has a major impact on pass rushers as they can fire off the ball and get immediately into their rush. This helps explain why some pass rushers tend to have better seasons statistically when their team is performing well. In a losing effort or in close games, however, opposing offenses can remain balanced with their play calling. In this scenario, pass rushers must play or at least be mindful of the run before getting after the quarterback.
This may not seem like a major disadvantage; it may only take a pass rusher one second or less to determine that the offense is looking to throw the ball. When you consider, though, that it only takes a quarterback one and a half to three seconds to get the ball out of his hands, that extra half second it takes to recognize and react to a pass can be damning for the pass rush.
The Eagles played in a lot of close games in 2016. By my estimation, there were only five games in which the Eagles were able to make their opponent one dimensional on offense in the later stages of the game. In the other eleven games, they were either losing, facing offenses looking to run clock thereby minimizing pass rush opportunities or were in a tightly contested contest where the opposing offense was able to maintain balance, adding that extra level of unpredictability. When you factor in that Graham played the majority of this past season under these circumstances, his production appears much more impressive.
Lastly, a good pass rush complements itself. Graham’s productivity in 2016 created one-on-one matchups elsewhere along the defensive line. Unfortunately, aside from Cox, no other rushers along the defensive line were able to consistently take advantage of this, much less reciprocate it for Graham. In addition, just like a good pass rush complements itself, so too does a good secondary. Just like a half second delay can be devastating to a pass rush, if the secondary can force the quarterback to hold the ball for an extra half second, it can have the opposite effect. Graham had none of this in 2016.
As a pass rusher, Graham played the majority of the season at a distinct disadvantage and, according to PFF, still produced better than all but one other player in the league. Sacks do not come to fruition without disruption but consistent disruption can lead to more sacks. Graham is only entering his second year in Jim Schwartz’s defense, the first defense in the last four years that actually matches up well with his strengths as a player. If Graham can continue to be as disruptive as he was in 2016, the sacks will eventually come. But remember, disruption is the actual production.
Graham may not officially be requesting more money from the Eagles but, given his current salary and level of production, there is zero doubt that he deserves it. As they head into the 2017 season, the Eagles are facing a difficult cap situation and may not have the resources to re-work Graham’s deal. Hopefully, though, they recognize his commitment to the organization and reward him as soon as they are able to.