Walking through a slow drizzle, Brandon Graham did his best to quell fears. Every year, contract stalemates infect training camps. Numbers are crunched. Greed is spread. And many first-round draft picks are banished to the recliner instead of the practice field.
Graham refuses to be another example. Alongside dozens upon dozens of teammates on the walk from the NovaCare indoor facility to a position meeting yesterday, Graham assured he won't let them down. He spoke loud enough for his fellow defensive linemen to hear.
"I need to be here on time because I know that I have an important role," said Graham, the Eagles' first-round pick. "I don't want anybody thinking I'm better than them holding out and stuff like that.
"You lose respect."
After the Eagles' final session of organized team activities today, the wait begins. Six of the Eagles' 13 draft choices have signed, although none selected higher than the fourth round. Graham, selected 13th overall, figures to be the final one. While the initiation to his new team has been smooth, Graham realizes this is all elementary compared to what begins on July 26 when rookies and selected veterans begin training camp at Lehigh. With their minimal contact and quick whistles, pad-less OTA sessions aren't exactly defense-friendly.
So he said he's telling agent Joel Segal to get a deal done fast. Competing with veteran Juqua Parker at left defensive end, Graham has a chance to start immediately. The Eagles have lacked an elite speed rusher opposite Pro Bowler Trent Cole. In a quarterback-rich NFC East, Graham is needed sooner rather than later. At the OTAs, Graham has picked up on subtleties at the pro level.
"Just learning all the techniques that I need to know," Graham said. "Learning everything they're trying to teach me."
For one, NFL linemen are savvier. Unlike Big Ten offensive tackles, pro linemen step back in a hurry. Whiplashing around unsuspecting tackles may be a thing of the past. And second, Graham is learning how to counter clubs to the helmet. Also a short defensive end, Parker has warned the 6-foot Graham that towering offensive tackles will try to smack him in the face off the snap.
Tackle Stacy Andrews hasn't had a chance to give Graham such chin music. The two haven't lined up head-on at all during OTAs. Still, the rookie has stood out to him. From afar, Andrews sees the signs. The overzealous offsides. The push-the-limit aggressiveness. Some players simply take these practices more seriously than others. Some rookies aren't afraid to agitate veterans.
On one play at yesterday's practice, Graham violently bull-rushed into the midsection of lanky King Dunlap as if this were September, not June.
"You can see he's doing what he can do without pads," Andrews said. "He's going hard. He has a whole lot of potential."
Graham acknowledges these practices have been a tease.
"It's tough because you have to stop once you get to the quarterback," Graham said. "That's the hardest thing as a defensive lineman because you're taught to sack the quarterback. I'm so ready for these pads. Everybody is. That's what we talk about every day."
Parker has been a big help. The player expected to eventually give way to Graham showed the rookie how to attack certain teams on the edge. Graham expects a healthy competition.
"I like the competition between us," Graham said. "It's not one of those, 'I hate you because you're about to take my spot.' Whoever is fit for the job is who is going to play."
All the more reason to show up on time in July. He doesn't want to be another horror story. Holding out often leads to an endless detour for young defensive ends. The latest victim is Buffalo's Aaron Maybin, who missed all of last year's training camp in a contract standoff. Upon returning, the field might as well have been barracaded with police tape. Maybin, the 11th overall pick, had 18 tackles and zero sacks in 16 games.
Not surprisingly, defensive coordinator Sean McDermott acknowledged how important it is for Graham to report on time. Once the pads are on, each snap is essential.
"It's exponentially important to get here on time and report to training camp on time," he said.
McDermott hasn't begun toying with Graham too much yet. So far, he sees the raw talent.
"You see the things you saw on tape from a movement standpoint," McDermott said. "He can come off the ball and has great speed and pad leverage."
Graham's summer game plan is set. He'll return to Michigan, where he racked up 28 sacks, and go back to work. Wolverines players usually clear out of the gym by 10 a.m., allowing him plenty of time to lift weights. In his down time, Graham's nose will be in the playbook. He admits this is his biggest challenge. In addition to end, Graham is picking up defensive tackle, too. In passing situations, the Eagles often slide an end inside.
All in all, he hopes the northern exposure doesn't linger too long. Too much is at stake for money to get in the way.