Brandon Graham was talking about sacks. He’s got 7½ this season, all in the last seven games.
No Eagle embodies the term team player more than the 31-year old veteran. But sacks, for better or worse, are often how defensive linemen are evaluated, and Graham has an opportunity to reach double digits for the first time.
“You know it’s up on my phone, right?” Graham said last week of the listing of NFL sacks leaders.
He grabbed his phone from his locker stall, touched the screen a few times, and up popped the chart. Graham scrolled down. He was five sacks behind the then-leader, linebacker Shaquil Barrett of the Buccaneers, but he was more concerned about the NFC defensive ends.
Graham has long been considered one of the league’s better all-around ends, but he’s never been to a Pro Bowl. He knows sacks, however, go a long way in persuading voters. There are five NFC defensive ends ahead of him, and a few notable names behind him.
He said he doesn’t care.
“Double digits is right there,” Graham said. “Who would have thought at 31, I’m finally getting double digits when people think you old. All it’s going to do is keep me in the league a little longer.”
Graham’s worth, however, has never been measured in numbers. If that were the case, the Eagles likely wouldn’t have signed their 2010 first-round draft pick to second and third contracts. He didn’t think he would return last offseason, but the team made him a priority.
It could be argued that the Eagles brought back too many of their former players, as most would either get injured again or regress. But the Graham signing has been one of the few to pan out.
He has played at a level consistent with that of his previous seasons, even if his sack numbers suggest something greater. But Graham’s big plays are often timely. His forced fumble on Bills quarterback Josh Allen in October not only turned that game around but may have helped save the season – at that time – for the Eagles.
His performance matters most, of course. But Graham brings more to the Eagles than just on-field production. His leadership, energy, and infectious personality can’t be quantified. His spirits are almost always up, and when coach Doug Pederson thinks his players need a jolt, from the start of the practice week to game time, Graham’s his go-to guy
“Right before kickoff, he and I usually come together. He just tells me, ‘Hey, I got you today. We’re going to bring the juice and we’re going to bring the energy,’ ” Pederson said Friday. “And I just tell him, ‘Hey, just continue to be positive with the guys and continue to lead.’
"That’s the same way it is throughout the week: being able to go to him and say, ‘Today I feel like today the guys’ vibe is down. I need you to pick these guys up a little bit.’
“He says, ‘I got you, Coach.’ ”
Graham has always been someone other players gravitated toward, but it took years before he could back up his words. His early struggles in the NFL have been well-documented. He underwent microscopic knee surgery as a rookie, missed most of his sophomore season, and spent the next several years either buried on the depth chart or playing in a scheme that didn’t suit him.
It was during the Chip Kelly years, Graham said, that other players began to emulate his training and practice habits. He had to lose weight shifting from a 4-3 end to a 3-4 outside linebacker, so Graham would bicycle to and from the practice facility each day, or, during practice, sprint from drill to drill.
By the time Pederson arrived in 2016, Graham – and other defensive leaders such as safety Malcolm Jenkins – had already established a culture that younger players had no choice but to adopt.
“It’s hard to replace guys who genuinely love the job and just want to help as many people while they’re here,” Graham said. “I just want to be able to come back one day and be like, ‘Man, they’re still doing that? Damn, boy, we passed down some stuff, didn’t we? Damn, them boys practice hard.”
Rookie Shareef Miller said that he has always considered himself a strong practice player. But he admitted that having to spend most of his time on the scout team, knowing that he was unlikely to dress for game days, has been difficult.
Graham has taken him under his wing, though.
“I want to play. I feel like I have the ability to play. But having someone to lean on and talk to, it’s always great,” Miller said. “He explained what he went through [early in his career]. He’s like, just control what you can control and keep grinding.
“And when you see him out on the field, always smiling, laughing, having fun, flying around, you want to bring that energy to practice, too.”
Graham’s vigor doesn’t end there. He has always tried to set the tone in games. In 2017, coordinator Jim Schwartz called him the “engine starter” of the defense after he made an early tackle for a loss in the season-opener at the Redskins.
“When I heard Schwartz say that, I just took that role,” Graham said. “Hell, yeah, you’re … right because I’m thinking that … when I’m out there. But he said that it and it just fueled it even more. When you make a play early, that’s when it know it’s going to be that type of day.”
Graham and defensive tackle Fletcher Cox challenge each other to see who can make the first impactful play. But they each went through an early dry spell this season. Neither had a sack through the first four games.
The season-ending injury in the opener to defensive tackle Malik Jackson, the Eagles’ prized offseason acquisition, had changed Schwartz’s plans for his front four. Graham, who had his best statistical season in 2017, when he rushed as much inside, initially resisted moving to tackle on third downs.
But he made the switch for the game against the New York Jets in Week 5 and recorded all three of his sacks rushing from inside.
“Outside was cool, but then I was like, ‘You know what, whatever the team needs,’ ” Graham said. “I’ve always been a team guy, so I put my stuff to the side. I knew Malik went down and I started being real. And three sacks came as soon as I did it.”
A sack the following week against the Vikings also came as a tackle, but his last 3½ have been as an end. He has five more games to top his career-best of 9½, set two years ago, and hit the double-digit milestone.
Graham has reliably been among the league leaders in other measureables for pass rushers such as quarterback hits, but the public perception of his contributions has risen in recent years thanks to the popularity of Pro Football Focus.
The web site has evaluators who grade the coaches’ film, for better or worse, and Graham has finished in the top 10 among qualifying edge rushers the last six years.
“Appreciate you, PFF, because a lot of people follow that,” Graham said.
He noted that his PFF grades were similar to ones he received from the Eagles for the games against the Patriots (92) and Seahawks (90) this season.
“My worst grade was the Dallas game, but I was dealing with a little bursa sac in my knee,” Graham said. “I’ve been dealing with that for the last couple [games], but the Dallas game was the first time it blew up on me. I couldn’t really plant the way I wanted to.”
Graham hasn’t popped up on the injury report this season, but he has long played through various ailments. He played through a high ankle sprain during the 2017 postseason, and of course, he still produced the most important defensive play in team history when he strip-sacked Tom Brady.
After missing 16 of his first 32 games in the NFL, Graham has missed only one to injury since.
His durability was just another reason the Eagles signed him to a three-year, $40 million contract in March. There also might not be a player better suited to be one of the faces of the franchise. Graham will often tease reporters during availability with a “Locker room’s closed!” declaration, but he’s typically one of the few to be accessible during the week, or after games, win or lose.
He knows, however, that no matter what he says, the number of sacks he generates will often get the most attention.
After assessing some of the ends ahead of him in the sack race – Cam Jordan, “he in”; Danielle Hunter, “for sure”; Robert Quinn, “I don’t know if he get the hype yet” – Graham announced that he has a greater goal.