BETHLEHEM — For Eagles fans, their names are inextricably tied. Like Martin and Lewis, Sonny and Cher, Mantle and Maris.
Brandon Graham and Jason Pierre-Paul.
"It used to bother me," said Graham, who the Eagles took over Pierre-Paul with the 13th pick in the 2010 draft. "But now, shoot, more power to him. He's doing a great job. Now it's time for me to get out there and hold up my end of the bargain and show why the Eagles brought me here."
Pierre-Paul, taken two picks after Graham by the Giants, had 16 1/2 sacks last season, was named first-team All-Pro and helped the Giants win their second Super Bowl title in 4 years.
Graham spent the 2011 season recuperating from a career-threatening knee injury suffered late in his rookie season that required mircrofracture surgery. He spent the first seven games of last season on the team's physically-unable-to-perform list and played just 56 snaps in the final nine games. Finished with a total of four tackles, five hurries and no sacks.
Now, finally healthy again, Graham is determined to prove that the Eagles weren't under the influence of hallucinogenic drugs when they drafted him ahead of Pierre-Paul.
"Brandon has a chip on his shoulder, man," defensive coordinator Juan Castillo said. "He's a competitor. He's being challenged and he worked his butt off this offseason. When you look into his eyes, you can see that there's a fire there. I guess maybe he wants to prove [everyone] wrong."
If Graham is looking for more motivation, all he needs to do is wander over to the Eagles' apparel tent here at training camp, where jerseys bearing his name and number are curiously on the discount rack with those of former players like Asante Samuel and Kevin Kolb.
But that's OK, because Graham is taking the approach that this is a make-or-break season for him, which probably isn't too far from the truth.
Despite his first-round pedigree, his grace period is pretty much up.
He is not guaranteed a spot on the Eagles' season-opening roster. He needs to earn one in camp and the preseason.
Right now, they've got seven defensive ends in camp. With tackles Cullen Jenkins and Fletcher Cox both able to play outside, there's a good possibility the Eagles will only keep four ends on their 53-man roster. Starters Jason Babin and Trent Cole obviously will be two of them. You can also check off rookie second-round pick Vinny Curry. That leaves Graham, Darryl Tapp and Phillip Hunt battling for that fourth spot in defensive line coach Jim Washburn's four-man end rotation.
"I'm coming from the ground up," Graham said. "I'm just like a free agent. Somebody that just got picked up by the Eagles this year and is facing a make-or-break year. You're either going to get it done or you're going to get cut."
Graham reported to camp in the best shape of his life. Asked to compare his strength, quickness and conditioning now to his rookie year, he said, "It's times three. Times three from before the injury.
“I've put a lot of work in this offseason. The hours I've put in, it's paying off right now because I'm in better shape than I've ever been in. Now I just need to work on my technique and give what coach Washburn is trying to get out of us."
Graham also had LASIK eye surgery during the offseason, which he believes will help him get off the ball better, particularly in Washburn's wide-nine alignment where the ends are a little farther away from the center.
"It's easier for me to see the ball now," he said. "I used to squint a lot and get a lot of migraines. Now, I'm feeling good."
Graham still is getting adjusted to the wide-nine simply because he played so few snaps last season. Tapp played 306 snaps, finishing with 2 1/2 sacks and 22 hurries. Hunt played 180 snaps and had two sacks and 13 hurries.
"It's not really just [a matter of] the defensive ends running up the field," Castillo said. "They have a landing point and a landmark. There is a certain way that they have to rush so that they can [also] play the run game. That's the thing that Brandon is learning.
“He's probably a little bit behind the other guys, but he'll catch up quickly. Wash has been working him pretty good and he's a smart kid.
“Football is muscle memory. You do it over and over until they become a natural deal and then you can play. If it's not natural, then it's not going to happen on the field."
Said Graham: "Coach Wash keeps you in check. He lets you know that you're not there yet and won't be until you're done playing. In your eyes, you should never think you're good enough because there's always something you can get better at. Even Kobe [Bryant] can get better at something."
Graham isn't bitter about his injury. He figures that, if it had to happen, better it happened early in his career when he's still young and able to make a complete recovery.
"I'm just happy that I still have some years left [to play]," he said. "To be able to show off what I can do."
And maybe, just maybe, get people to stop dwelling on the fact that he was picked ahead of Jason Pierre-Paul. n