Brandon Graham embraces new role on dominant Eagles defense

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There are moments when Brandon Graham sees highlights of his years-ago self and knows that time has caught up with him. He can say there are plays he used to make in his prime that he can’t make today.

“I know I’m not the guy I was at the beginning,” the veteran Eagles defensive end said. “Man, when I see certain plays (from) back then I look a lot faster. And I wasn’t letting those quarterbacks beat me to the limit on those danger zone reads.”

Some things, however, get better with age. And while at 34 and in his 13th NFL season, Graham may not have looked like the player he was, he has become noticeably more productive. Just 16 months removed from a ruptured Achilles that many thought would end his career, Graham is coming off 11 sacks during the regular season, plus another in last Saturday’s divisional playoff round at night.

And as the Philadelphia Eagles (15-3) prepare for Sunday’s NFC Championship Game (3 p.m. ET on FOX) against the San Francisco 49ers (15-4), Graham is one of the leaders of the best run in NFL passes. He’s also on pace with nine sacks in his last nine games.

That’s not bad for a guy who believes his best days are behind him and has become a part-time player for his team.

“But I feel like I’m still going through the run just the same, being dominant in the run game,” Graham said. “And I really (am) enjoying being the leader of the guys. Because coming off the bench I get to see a lot of things. I try to be the shining light for the guys as far as making sure they keep raising their game and that they know what we’re seeing Aside.

“I like my role on this team. My role has been great this year. It’s been fun.”

That’s the attitude Graham has adopted since returning to the field in training camp this summer. He was taught a hard lesson last year when he tore his Achilles in a Week 2 loss to the 49ers that, especially at his advanced age, every play could be his last.

And there was a chance that the game would be the last. In July, she recalled how difficult it was to stay in bed for almost two months after surgery, unable to do any physical activity. He remembered the “proof” of “What do you want? You want to come back, don’t you?” He admitted that “it was a battle” just to convince himself that he did it.

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Once he decided to return, it was clear that he would not be returning in the same role full-time. In 2020, Graham played 71.5 percent of the Eagles’ defensive snaps. He’s only played 44.2 percent of the time this year. He even played in just 12 of 52 snaps in the 38-7 playoff win against the Giants.

“Well, it keeps him fresh, there’s no doubt about it,” Eagles coach Nick Sirianni explained a few weeks ago. “He’s done a great job of taking advantage of the reps he’s gotten. And even though BG isn’t there sometimes, he’s the leader. He’s one of the biggest leaders on this football team. And people thrive on (him) His energy is contagious.”

It can’t be easy to maintain that energy as a part-time player, given who he was and where his career seemed to be headed. The 13th overall pick out of Michigan in 2010, Graham took some time to get his career going. He tore his ACL as a rookie and needed microfracture surgery later that year. And the long recovery cost him almost his entire second season. He didn’t become a regular starter for the Eagles until ‘6.

However, he had a career-ending surge. Graham had 9.5 sacks in 2017, fueling a defense that led the Eagles to a Super Bowl championship. He even had a sack of Tom Brady in the final minutes of Super Bowl LII, a game-sealing play that is one of the most famous in Philadelphia sports history.

He had 8.5 more sacks in 2019 and another 8 in 2020 when he made the Pro Bowl for the first time. It had also been durable. From 2012 to 2020, only one game was lost.

The injury changed Graham’s trajectory, however. Josh Sweat began to emerge as a dominant pass rusher in his absence. The Eagles then went out and signed running back Haason Reddick to a three-year, $45 million deal in March. Now on a loaded line that also featured veterans Fletcher Cox and Javon Hargrave and first-round rookie Jordan Davis in the middle, Graham had no choice but to take on a reduced role.

“What he’s done, after the injury and the role he’s taken on, he feels good and comes out and produces, like all of our guys,” Eagles defensive coordinator Jonathan Gannon said late in the season. “But that’s why I like the rotation in this room, because it keeps those guys fresh so later in the game they’re not tired and they can go on to win at a high level.”

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There is no arguing with the results. The Eagles led the league by far with 70 sacks this season, including 46.5 sacks by eight defensive linemen, not including the 16 that came from Reddick (technically a linebacker) off the edge. Four players had double-digit sack totals, including Reddick. Hargrave, Sweat and Graham each had 11.

None of them, of course, did it in less time than Graham.

He’s been impressive enough that he should have been a finalist for the NFL Player of the Year award, though he was snubbed when the three finalists were revealed: Giants running back Saquon Barkley, 49ers running back Christian McCaffrey and Seahawks quarterback Geno Smith. Wednesday.

Of course, that’s not the trophy Graham really wants.

“For me, coming back from an injury that a lot of people don’t normally come back from, I’ve come back from it and I’m thankful for that,” he said. “I’m just trying to make sure I finish the deal by giving it everything I’ve got.”

That means taking advantage of every hit he gets, however few they may be, in what could be the final home game of his career on Sunday. Graham said he hasn’t given much thought to whether he’ll try to play again next season. For now, he’s just focused on making sure all the fun he’s having this season doesn’t end.

“I’m more than trying to finish the deal this season,” he said. “I’m just trying to stop time as much as I can.”

Ralph Vacchiano is the NFC East reporter for FOX Sports, covering the Washington Commanders, Philadelphia Eagles and New York Giants. He spent the previous six years covering the Giants and Jets for SNY TV in New York, and before that, 16 years covering the Giants and the NFL for the New York Daily News. Follow him on Twitter at @RalphVacchiano.

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