Two years ago, Brandon Graham dreaded the questions. Graham knew that when the Eagles played the Seattle Seahawks and safety Earl Thomas, he would hear questions about whether he was a draft bust.
Graham, the Eagles' first-round pick in 2010, still hears from fans who wish the team selected Thomas when they traded up to the No. 13 overall pick. Considering that Thomas is a three-time all-pro and Graham has 17 career sacks, that is a reasonable opinion.
But Graham has started to shed the bust label this season. He has tied a career high with 51/2 sacks, forced four fumbles, and has been a steady contributor on defense and special teams. His reputation is changing, and the change has come months before he could be one of the pass rushers on the free-agent market.
"They used to say 'Jason Pierre-Paul is better than you', now they say he isn't," Graham said. "Now, they're like, 'We should have gotten Earl Thomas.' Hopefully I can change all that."
Graham, 26, has played 39 percent of the snaps this season as a situational outside linebacker. He has developed at his new position after a slow transition from defensive end last season. His skill set was always as a pass rusher, where he has the power and low center of gravity that defensive coordinator Bill Davis said gives him a strong push. Graham also has helped against the run, improved at dropping into pass coverage, and is valuable on special teams.
"When he goes to his bull rush, people move backward no matter how big they are," Davis said. "And Brandon's got a nice counter move. He's very strong-handed, he's got real heavy hands, so setting the edge in a run game and his bull pass-rush are probably his trademarks, and then he's got so much better at going backward and knowing where he fits in coverage."
Graham did not disagree that this is the best he has played in his career, saying that the "sky's the limit."
But a reputation can be slow to change, and Graham's early career did not go as planned. He believed he was emerging in his rookie season before a knee injury required surgery that slowed him throughout his second season. Graham played in only three games in 2011, and he was stuck as a reserve for defensive line coach Jim Washburn upon his return.
Graham flashed his potential again late in 2012. That's when Washburn was fired and Jason Babin was released. Graham started the final six games of the season and had four sacks during that period. Then came a scheme change and new position, and Graham needed to rework his body.
"For me, I started focusing on myself and not worrying about what people [were] saying - that he's not living up to [being a] first-rounder," Graham said. "I mean, I got hurt. I was starting to feel real good and then I got hurt and I had to work from the ground up."
This was a challenge for Graham, who took criticism to heart. It was heard across the country in Seattle, too, where Thomas told The Inquirer in January that he heard from Eagles fans on Twitter who wished the team had selected him.
It's not second-guessing, either, because Thomas was the expected pick when the Eagles moved up in the draft. Thomas remembered watching the draft commentators predict that he would end up in Philadelphia before he heard Graham's name announced.
"A lot of people from Philly are like, 'Oh, my God! Every time we see him, he could be in our uniform,' or if they see me in the Pro Bowl or something, they say he's a Pro Bowler," Thomas said.
Graham said he has adopted a new strategy on social media. If a fan brings up that draft, he blocks them.
"I'm going to let the fans keep on saying what they're going to say," Graham said. "That's the past to me. Congrats to [Thomas]. I know I can be where he's at, or better."
With each sack and forced fumble, Graham is at least playing like a high draft pick - even if it's not at Thomas' level. Graham has endured trade rumors and questions about whether he would remain on the roster during the last two seasons, but he noted that five years later, he's still in Philadelphia. His future with the team is unclear. At least for this season, he has turned into a key piece in the Eagles' postseason push.
"I'm definitely excited that opinions get changed," Graham said. "I would love to be here and win a championship and be one of the reasons why."