IT WAS in the spring of 2012 that Brandon Graham declared himself a bust.
The Eagles' 2010 first-round pick was weary from sparring, on Twitter and elsewhere, with fans angry with him for not being Earl Thomas or Jason Pierre-Paul, two future Pro Bowl defensive players who were on the board when the Birds traded up to pick Graham 13th overall that year. So during OTAs that May, after 2 years in which a serious knee injury and its aftermath limited him to 16 games, Graham said he would wear the "bust" label, use it as motivation.
He went on to have a decent season, especially after the team got rid of defensive line coach Jim Washburn, who didn't want to play Graham. But the Eagles went 4-12, and Graham's 5 1/2 sacks, four in the final five games, were swept away in the larger drama of the end of the Andy Reid era. When Chip Kelly replaced Reid, one of the first things everyone mentioned was that Kelly preferred size and a 3-4 defense, and Graham was a 6-2 edge rusher couldn't play in space, who seemed pretty much 180 degrees from what Kelly and new defensive coordinator Bill Davis had in mind.
And yet, we're five games into 2014, a Sunday night meeting with the Giants on tap, and Brandon Graham endures. Maybe even triumphs, with an evolving role that is very different from the one he imagined when he arrived, having led the nation in tackles for a loss as a Michigan senior.
"You're really getting a guy who's invested in it. He's worked very hard in the offseason, and it's paying off," Kelly said yesterday. He noted that Graham has learned both outside linebacking positions, so he can rotate this year not only with Trent Cole but also with Connor Barwin, and that Graham is "light-years ahead of where he was last year from a special-teams standpoint."
Six months ago, the widespread assumption was that Graham would be traded or released by the May draft.
"I would love to be here," Graham said yesterday, when asked about the possibility he might sign on beyond the end-of-season expiration of his 5-year rookie deal, worth just under $17 million. "I made Philly my home. I've been here 5 years; this is what I know. I don't want to go anywhere else without winning a [Super Bowl] ring . . . I want to be on the first team to do it, here. It's exciting. We'll see, once the season ends."
He logged 26 defensive snaps Sunday against the Rams, 12 more on special teams. Managed a tackle for a loss, four hurries, and a forced fumble that Cedric Thornton returned 40 yards, leading to an Eagles touchdown.
Graham said he always thought he could get the fans on his side.
"People out there see that I'm relentless, and I've been trying to go as hard as I can. You're going to get everything out of me," Graham said. "I knew that one day it would change. I truly believed that once I got my opportunity, people weren't going to look at me the same.
"I had to block that stuff out, man. It was a little hard to deal with at one point, because it made me not even want to go out and do stuff. You start feeling the same [as the fans], like, 'Dang, man, am I that bad?' It's one of those things where the light goes on - this is not everything. Even though it's my job, it doesn't make you as an individual."
Graham said his wife, Carlyne, helped him keep perspective, though she initially was as angry about the insults as he was.
"She knew how stressful it was. She wanted to fight [alongside] me," he said. "It was, like, 'Look, we're not even going to do this,' because it started interrupting what we had going on. I would tell her I didn't want to do certain [public] things, because I didn't want anybody saying anything negative. Now, man, we don't even care."
Graham said people were bolder on social media than in person, but some were still willing to make snide remarks face-to-face with a 267-pound professional football player. Not lately, though.
"I'm happy, but I ain't satisfied, because I know it's going to keep getting better if I keep working hard," Graham said. "As long as my attitude is the same, and I got that 'chip' that I always have, the sky's the limit on how far I can take my game . . . I can kind of breathe a little bit, know that I can play in this league. You start to doubt yourself, after a while. But [now] I'm excited."
Graham said left tackle Jason Peters has been an off-the-field mentor, encouraging Graham to do extra work or get treatment that will help his muscles recover. Kelly's fitness emphasis also has had an effect.
"Let me tell you, I came a long way on that special teams," Graham said. "It's tough, because you go [hard] on kickoff, now you're going to go play defense. You're tired. But now that I'm in good shape, I don't even worry about it."
Eagles defensive coordinator Bill Davis noted this week that Graham is doing much better in space. He gave up a catch early in the Rams game, but had the receiver blanketed downfield and just didn't quite get to the ball.
"That was a phenomenal coverage on his part; we just didn't play the ball at the point of the catch as well as we'd like to, but, boy, Brandon was in a great spot," Davis said. "He's getting better in that. He's working hard at the details."
The Pierre-Paul bitterness has died down, probably because Pierre-Paul has struggled since that amazing 16 1/2-sack year in 2011. Pierre-Paul, a 6-5, 278-pound defensive end, will always be a lot bigger than Graham, but he comes to Lincoln Financial Field with 1 1/2 sacks this season, to Graham's one, Graham having logged far fewer snaps.
But Earl Thomas? The league's best player at the position that has haunted the Eagles since Brian Dawkins left in 2009? The pain of that miscalculation might never go away, though the Birds have managed to dull it a little this year by signing Malcolm Jenkins.
It was not, in fact, Graham's idea that the Eagles should draft him ahead of Thomas, the safety who went to Seattle, 14th overall, one pick before the Giants selected Pierre-Paul.
"Every time he plays, I still gotta hear it," Graham said. "I gotta get me a couple Pro Bowls under my belt for it to change. But that's always going to be there. Earl Thomas is a great player. It's all good. It is what it is. People need to get over that. It wasn't my fault I got here, but at the end of the day, they're going to see that I'm worthy of the pick, too."