It was unknown last spring whether Brandon Graham would emerge as a starter for the Eagles. After starting all 16 games for the first time in his career and producing his best NFL season, Graham returns in 2017 as an established defensive end in the team’s lineup.
Graham was named a Pro Bowl alternate and second-team all-pro while leading the NFL with 78 combined sacks, hurries, and quarterback knockdowns. But he totaled only 5 1/2 sacks, so even though he pressured the quarterback, he did not bring the quarterback to the ground as often as he wanted — or even as much as the year before.
“My next step is to make sure I get the quarterback down,” Graham said Tuesday. “I think I missed a lot of sacks last year, and I think for me, it’s just making sure I work on my technique a lot better. … Sometimes when I missed, I wasn’t as violent as I should have been at certain times.”
Graham was more successful at hurrying the quarterback — he did so 30 times — which has value. But sacks are negative plays, and the Eagles need more of them. The defensive ends combined for only 16 1/2 sacks last season, an alarmingly low number for coordinator Jim Schwartz’s scheme.
After a hot start to the season, Graham said the Eagles’ pass rushers focused “a little much on sacks” and did not play freely enough. That needs to change. There were also some roster moves, including Connor Barwin’s release and the signing of Chris Long.
Plus, the Eagles could add an edge rusher in the draft next week. Graham has watched film of some of the top prospects, including potential first-round pick Derek Barnett of Tennessee. Considering the lack of production last season and the fact that Graham is 29, Long is 32, and Vinny Curry will be 29 on opening day, the Eagles have a long-term need at the position.
The defense will count on Curry to take on a bigger role. He totaled only 2 1/2 sacks after signing a five-year, $47.5 million contract last offseason. Curry could take Barwin’s starting spot at right defensive end, although Long could challenge him for playing time.
“He’s looking real lean. He’s looking ready,” Graham said of Curry. “His mind-set is a lot different than last year. He’s going into it with a positive attitude. … I think for him, he’s going to make that leap we’ve all been waiting for, and he’s been waiting for.”
It’s more difficult to rush from the right side, where Barwin lined up, than the left side, where Graham played. The right defensive end must combat top left tackles such as Dallas’ Tyron Smith and Washington’s Trent Williams. He also doesn’t have the benefit of playing next to Fletcher Cox.
Barwin said moving from the left side to the right last season was a bigger adjustment than going from a 3-4 defensive scheme to a 4-3 look.
Graham said he would be willing to play on the right side this year if needed. He practiced rushing from the right and believes he can play both — even if that means facing top left tackles.
“We’re in this business to compete, and running away from competition is not me,” Graham said. “It’s never going to be me when I’m playing.”
However they line up, the Eagles will need more sacks in 2017. Graham is making that a personal goal. He has 29 sacks in seven years and has never topped 6 1/2 in a season. This would be a good season to change that.
“The effort is there,” Graham said, “but taking that next step of being a technician.”