Two young Eagles struggling to find their forms

120111_thomasPanel_400
The Eagles passed on Earl Thomas (center) to draft Brandon Graham (right) and Nate Allen. (AP Photos)

SEATTLE - In one year, safety Nate Allen and defensive end Brandon Graham have gone from budding rookies to injury-plagued disappointments.

It's too early to label the Eagles' top 2010 draft picks as busts, but that hasn't stopped the masses - already in pitchfork-and-torch mode after a disastrous season - from tossing Allen and Graham in with the rest of Andy Reid's draft flops.

At this point, however, it's hard to argue with the assessment. Both players suffered season-ending knee injuries last December. Both players were seemingly rushed back too early. And both players have failed to live up to the price the Eagles paid for them.

"Already threw me under the bus," Graham said of his critics. "It's just motivation for me because I know what I can do, and I know I'm going to do it when it's time."

Allen had arguably the worst game of his career on Sunday against the Patriots. Graham was inactive for the second straight week under mysterious circumstances. And then, just to remind Eagles fans what they could have had instead of the two, Thursday's game at Seattle awaits.

The Seahawks, like the Eagles, are 4-7, a not-yet-dead team playing out its final stretch of games. But they have Earl Thomas. He is not yet a Pro Bowl safety - he may never be - but he is good and has shown the kind of progress Allen and Graham have yet to show - or have yet to have the opportunity to show - because of injuries.

Poll

With the Eagles at 4-7, is there any reason for Michael Vick to rush back into the starting lineup?

The Eagles could have had Thomas. When they traded up 11 spots in the first round of the 2010 draft, the Texas product was still on the board. It was no secret the Eagles were in need of a safety after Macho Harris did very little to fill the giant shoes of Brian Dawkins in 2009.

But the team had other plans. The Eagles, to some surprise, took Graham with the 13th overall pick. The Seahawks then snagged Thomas with the next pick, and the New York Giants grabbed South Florida defensive end Jason Pierre-Paul, he of 101/2 sacks this season, at No. 15.

The following day, the Eagles selected Allen, a highly regarded teammate of Pierre-Paul's at South Florida, with the fifth pick in the second round. That selection will always be known as the Donovan McNabb pick. The Eagles received the 37th overall selection and a 2011 fourth-round pick from the Redskins in exchanged for their one-time franchise quarterback.

"The Donovan thing is in the past," Allen said when asked about any additional pressure that comes with being part of that trade.

Still, the expectations were high for both players when they opened last season as starters. Allen had three interceptions after four games, and Graham had two sacks, eight hurries, and one forced fumble through five.

But struggles soon followed. Allen was terrorized by Titans receiver Kenny Britt in an October loss and then missed a November game because of a neck injury. Graham injured his ankle, lost his starting spot, and recorded just one sack over an eight-game span.

And then on successive weeks in December, Graham tore the anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee and Allen ruptured the patellar tendon in his right knee. Both had surgeries, and later it was revealed Graham's knee also required microfracture surgery.

Because of the NFL lockout, the Eagles couldn't conduct Graham and Allen's rehabilitations for almost five months. Still, when the work stoppage was over, their returns appeared to be on track. Allen would be back by the start of the season and Graham sometime in the middle.

But Allen was a step slow in the second preseason game and was benched the following week. He earned his starting spot back by Week 4 and had strong showings against the Bills and Redskins in October but has since regressed.

Against New England, he bit badly on a Tom Brady play fake and watched as receiver Wes Welker cruised by him for a 41-yard touchdown.

"He was trying to play aggressive and got caught," Reid said. "It happens to every safety in the National Football League."

But that was just one of several miscues. Reid said that he didn't believe Allen's knee injury was holding the 24-year-old back. Allen hasn't used his knee as an excuse but said it was still not 100 percent. He receives injections before every game.

More than anything, Allen said he is still learning the nuances of the position.

"I wouldn't call myself a vet or anything like that," he said. "You're always learning."

Graham's 2011 season was always in peril. He spent the first eight weeks of the season on the physically-unable- to-perform list but was activated for the Bears game, one week before the Eagles faced a deadline.

It now appears they should have taken that extra time. Graham recorded three tackles against Chicago but didn't do much the next game against the Cardinals and didn't dress the following week. Reid said it was a rib injury, but it became clear that Graham's knee still wasn't right.

On Tuesday, he showed a reporter how his right quadriceps is visibly smaller than his left. Graham said that he expects to play again before the end of the season, but that he's "going to be real, for real, next year."

Next season will be the expiration date for fair evaluations of Graham, Allen, and Eagles general manager Howie Roseman's first draft class.

"By next year I should be rocked up," Graham said. "Remember me saying that. I'm going to have a six-pack by next year."

 


Contact staff writer Jeff McLane at 215-854-4745, jmclane@phillynews.com or @Jeff_McLane on Twitter.