Skip to content
Link copied to clipboard

A revitalized Brandon Graham returns home to Detroit

Brandon Graham looks at Detroit, and he doesn't see a once-prosperous metropolis that decayed. He sees a city on the rise, one that has been "bad-mouthed so long" but offers more promise than perception would suggest.

Brandon Graham looks at Detroit, and he doesn't see a once-prosperous metropolis that decayed. He sees a city on the rise, one that has been "bad-mouthed so long" but offers more promise than perception would suggest.

"People come in and say, 'I didn't know it was like that,' " Graham said. "We're in a rebuild right now. And I want to be a part of that."

Sound familiar?

Graham - once labeled a draft bust and an underachiever who has been on the trade block and been a lame duck - returns to his hometown of Detroit on Sunday playing at perhaps the highest level of his seven-year career. A player whose demise in Philadelphia once seemed inevitable has found renewed life at age 28 under defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz.

He recorded three sacks in three games, thriving as a defensive end in Schwartz's 4-3 attacking scheme. He's playing the way the Eagles envisioned when they traded up in the first round of the 2010 draft to select him.

"He's rolling right now," defensive end Vinny Curry said. "He's always been this good."

Graham has been productive with the Eagles for the last few seasons, but he has taken his game to a higher level in Schwartz's scheme. He was drafted to play in the 4-3, but injury and a crowded depth chart kept him from becoming a regular starter.

When Chip Kelly arrived and moved the Eagles to a 3-4 defense, Graham needed to adjust. He made it work, earning a second contract that once seemed improbable, and beginning to earn the appreciation of Eagles fans who wished the team had selected Earl Thomas or Jason Pierre-Paul. But even then, the all-around production was not as it was this September.

"Scheme is helping him a lot," safety Malcolm Jenkins said. "They're taking a lot off his plate, whereas he had to drop into coverage a little bit. He still could get pressure, but now he's able to put his hand in the ground, pin his ears back, and attack. And he's one of our best D-linemen that can do that, when you talk about coming off the edge. He's powerful, he's got moves - his bull rush is probably the best on our team."

The difference is significant. As an outside linebacker in the 3-4, Graham sometimes needed to drop into coverage and rush from a stand-up position. There was more reading and reacting. With Schwartz, Graham can just worry about getting up field and use the bull rush technique that Jenkins referred to - combining speed, power, and natural leverage to beat offensive tackles.

During the last three years, Curry said, he and Graham would talk "all the time" about how they weren't in the scheme that best fit their skills. Graham had the option of going elsewhere after the 2014 season, and he even suggested before hitting free agency that the 4-3 might be in his future. Graham changed his mind after seeing what the Eagles were offering and what the market would bear. But the skills that made him a fit in the 4-3 never went away.

"He's always been a good rusher," Schwartz said. "He's compact, he's strong, he plays with great effort. . . . I think his biggest thing is the tempo he plays with, his effort. He's a tough guy and he's one of our tempo-setters up front for our whole team. . . . He's not a one-trick pony. All of our guys up front would be expected to do both."

Graham's production has also affected the defensive end rotation. Curry signed a five-year, $46.25 million contract during the offseason, but his playing time lags behind Connor Barwin's and Graham's. Barwin is playing 76 percent of the snaps and Graham is playing 70 percent. Curry is playing only 45 percent. As Schwartz responded to a question about playing time distribution earlier this season, who comes off the field?

On Sunday in front of family and friends at Ford Field, Graham is expected to play a major role. He had a tough return home last Thanksgiving, spending the holiday embarrassed by the way the Eagles played. And he's surrounded by Lions fans often - Graham organizes a coed football camp back in Detroit that takes five boys and five girls from each of Detroit's 20 public high schools.

Graham was eager to return to Detroit this weekend. He wants a Coney Dog from his favorite place, and salivated at the thought of a soul food restaurant near the team hotel. He boasted about the Motor City to someone from Philadelphia, insisting that people here don't realize what Detroit is really like.

He repeated that Detroit is on the "rebuild."

Sometimes, it just takes patience and circumstance to bring about a revival - just like the season Graham is experiencing.

"It's only going to get better," Graham said. "I think it's a good start, though."