In March 2016, when the Eagles signed free agent Brandon Brooks for $40 million over five years, with $21 million guaranteed, the NFL shrugged.
One personnel exec whose AFC team had faced Brooks and the Houston Texans said he thought the Eagles had paid a high price for a decent right guard who wasn’t a star. But the exec said he recognized that after three years of the Chip Kelly talent drain, the Eagles had little choice.
This week, Brooks, 29, was named a Pro Bowl starter, his second successive selection, as he prepared to face his former Houston teammates Sunday.
“I think he’s the best in the league at what he does,” said right tackle Lane Johnson, who lines up next to Brooks. “He’s physically imposing, able to handle pretty much anything thrown at him.”
Chance Warmack backs up Brooks, though Warmack was drafted 13th overall in 2013’s first round, by Tennessee, while Houston took Brooks a year earlier at 76th overall, in the third round – with a pick obtained from the Eagles in the DeMeco Ryans trade.
“He’s a unique guy,” Warmack said of Brooks, who is listed at 6-5, 335, but goes closer to 350, with a flat waist and tattooed biceps that hang from his shoulder pads like hams on a smokehouse wall. “He does a lot of things that a lot of guards can’t do. He’s a very intelligent player.
“You don’t see a lot of guys who are that big moving like him, then, at the same time, understanding the game. A lot of guys can get away with a lot of stuff because they’re just genetically gifted.”
Warmack said Brooks combines those genetic gifts with a thorough knowledge of what he has to do and how to do it.
It was not always this way. Brooks appeared in just six Houston games as a rookie out of Miami of Ohio. He became a starter the next year, but when his rookie deal was up in 2016, the Texans weren’t moving past a certain figure – probably the $28 million, four-year contract they gave to Kansas City’s Jeff Allen, after Brooks left.
“I look at it almost like growing up," Brooks said Thursday. "… Football-wise, it’s like I was born and raised in Houston … learned how to be a pro. Coming here, it was almost like maturing into a man. I was a little older … . I went through [a struggle with anxiety], which showed me a lot, off the field, like, what kind of person I am. But also I got to grow with these guys. Won a championship here.
"Houston will always have a special place in my heart, because they took the chance of drafting me. I’ll definitely be a little emotional about [playing the Texans]. Happy for those guys’ success down there, happy for the guys I still talk to down there.”
Two things propelled Brooks to where he is today. After missing two games late in the 2016 season – the only Eagles games he has missed – because of the crippling game-day anxiety that at one point led him to be hospitalized, Brooks sought help and went public with that problem, which he has managed well ever since. And, as he navigated through his issues, he realized he had a ride-or-die ally in Eagles offensive line coach Jeff Stoutland.
“When something like that happens, it forces people to pick a side,” Brooks said. “I have no hard feelings for guys who didn’t support me. [But] there are guys who did support me, coaches on down. ‘Stout,’ man, through thick and thin, had my back. The first thing he said was, ‘I’m not really worried about football right now, I’m worried about you as a person.’
“When somebody has your back through thick and thin, especially in your darkest moments, that means a lot to you … no matter what this man asks of me, it’ll never be questioned. I think, from there, we really understood each other and knew what we wanted out of each other. It’s almost been like blind faith for me, man, just following him to the end.”
Last year, Stoutland exulted over how Brooks got downfield to throw a crucial block on a long Jay Ajyai run. But, the coach added that Brooks didn’t have to be moving in space to make a huge hit.
“He can stand at the line of scrimmage in a phone booth and knock your face off,” Stoutland said. “He’s a tough guy mentally. To me, he’s just a whole different guy right now, every facet of the game … . He’s feeling good about where he’s at. He’s enjoying the game right now, I know that.”
His last two years in Houston, Brooks was not enjoying the game nearly as much. The Texans fired head coach Gary Kubiak and replaced him with former Penn State coach Bill O’Brien, whose style was fashioned working in New England for Bill Belichick.
Brooks was not a fan. Last spring, amid discussion of the dour “Patriot Way” vs. Eagles coach Doug Pederson’s more player-oriented approach, Brooks opined that under O’Brien “[stuff] was miserable every day.”
This week, O’Brien, who has the Texans playoff-bound at 10-4, told Philadelphia-area reporters in a conference call that he enjoyed coaching Brooks.
“Very good player. Tough guy. Smart guy. Did an excellent job for us here. Obviously in free agency, took an opportunity to go to Philly. Definitely wanted him back, but it was an opportunity he couldn’t pass up.”
When Brooks was asked to think back to that time, he said: “I’ll be real with you guys … . It came down to those two, and as far as the money, they weren’t very far apart. I’ll leave it at that. Wanted a fresh start, man, wanted to go somewhere else. Came here, and [it was] the best decision I could have made. I just wanted to do something different.”
Brooks won a Super Bowl here, playing every playoff snap. Bought a house in South Jersey last year. He grew up in Milwaukee, but when he was asked whether the Philadelphia area feels like home, Brooks blinked back tears.
“The guys I play with every day, the bond is tight, man. We’re real close,” he said. “Outside of here, all our wives and girlfriends know each other, they hang out as well. The team’s like super close. Everybody’s happy, everybody’s enjoying their job every day, owner on down, man. Even when things don’t go our way, guys are still upbeat, wanting to chip away, get stuff done.