When he arrived here in 2010, Brandon Graham was all smiles, a cheery defensive end who promised to put quarterbacks in the dirt.
Drafted 13th overall, Graham embraced the spotlight, the media and all the trappings that come with being a first-round pick.
Two years later, Graham is most familiar with the flip side of being a top selection: pressure, scrutiny, high expectations and harsh criticism for falling short. Those realities all tail him as he enters a critical third season in the NFL, still trying to make his mark with the Eagles.
"I haven't [done] nothing, really," Graham said on Tuesday, summing up what many fans think of him.
He vows to use that perception as motivation to return this season in better shape. "Right now, I'm a bust, so I'm going to deal with that. I'm a bust, and I'm going to keep being a bust. Even when I make plays, I'm going to still act like I'm a bust. You know what I'm saying?"
After two seasons with just three sacks and six starts, one torn anterior cruciate ligament and one microfracture knee surgery, Graham has endured an avalanche of criticism and unflattering comparisons to Jason Pierre-Paul, the defensive end drafted by the Giants two picks after Graham.
While the Eagles end played in just three games in 2011 as he recovered from his knee injury, Pierre-Paul became a force who helped the Giants to a Super Bowl title.
Graham, 24, doesn't hide from the comparisons, but he said the difficult times last season helped him mature.
"It hasn't done nothing but make me grow and help me get stronger," Graham said. He played in just three games in 2011. Twice he dressed and was left to sit on the bench. "Going through that whole thing last year, not playing, I just grew as a person, that was number one. I've moved on from it. Now it's time for me to defend myself."
Eagles leaders still say they have high hopes for Graham, who they traded up to draft, but that in year three he has to finally prove himself. If he doesn't show positive signs this time around, chances are he won't ever become the player the Eagles hoped they were getting.
Graham's start in the NFL has been hampered by his injury, but this year he should have no excuses. He is more than a year removed from his ACL tear, suffered Dec. 12, 2010, and will have a full offseason in the demanding school of defensive line coach Jim Washburn.
Graham has lost 20 pounds from last season - he is down to 265 - has taken up boxing to stay fit and says he feels far more confident in his repaired right knee.
"Its been a whole year since I've been out there [as] confident as I am today and all I can do is just take it one day at a time, one practice at a time, and that's what I'm doing. Today went pretty well," Graham said after practice. With Jason Babin skipping the start of the voluntary sessions, Graham got some snaps with the first team defense. "I felt real good. . . . Now I don't really think about my knee as much as I did coming back, because that's what I was doing a lot, I was favoring it."
Now, he said, "I just go as hard as I can."
Despite dropping weight, going back down to the size he was as a junior at Michigan, Graham said he is bench pressing 465 pounds four times, the most he ever has.
Graham will need his increased fitness to thrive in Washburn's up-tempo defensive rotation.
"I couldn't run as much [last season]. . . . I still wasn't as in shape as I needed to be. But now that's not a problem at all," Graham said. "I'm able to go as hard as I can for a longer period of time. . . . Last year I felt like I wasn't all the way there because my weight was holding me back a little bit and it was adding a little more stress on my knee. Now, I don't even worry about that."
Instead, Graham faces stress from other sources: the media, fans, critics and from a team that made a steep investment in him in 2010. After coming to Philadelphia amid optimism, he now faces skepticism, and perhaps one last chance to play up to his lofty billing.
Contact Jonathan Tamari at 215-854-5214, firstname.lastname@example.org or follow on Twitter @JonathanTamari.