St. Paul, Minn. – Before Brandon Graham played a snap in the NFL, Philadelphia Eagles defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz knew the young defensive lineman out of the University of Michigan would be a great fit in his defensive scheme. So much so he put his money where his mouth was.
As the coach of the Detroit Lions in 2010, Schwartz and his staff were coaching at the Senior Bowl. Wanting to spice up the week, he offered any of his assistants $500 if they could correctly predict the game’s MVP.
The only catch was Schwartz got the first pick and with it he selected Graham.
“He had a couple sacks, tackles for losses and ended up winning the MVP,” Schwartz said. “He’s tough as can be. He’s hard to handle in the run game, hard to handle in the pass game, plays with a lot of energy. I knew right away, when we saw him play in that Senior Bowl, he was one of our favorite guys. It was disappointing not to be able to get him when we were in Detroit.”
The Lions held the No. 2 pick that year and landed some guy out of Nebraska named Ndamukong. That turned out just fine, at least until he left for Miami in free agency five years later. Graham went to the Eagles 11 picks later, well before the Lions had another selection.
Graham’s career got off to a slow start. He recorded just 13 tackles and 3.0 sacks in 13 games as a rookie, and missed much of his sophomore campaign after tearing his ACL and requiring microfracture surgery on his knee.
When the Eagles switched schemes in 2013, Graham was moved to linebacker, where he had moderate success the next two seasons, earning a four-year extension from the Eagles. But his production didn’t take off until he was reunited with Schwartz two years ago.
“It’s the scheme,” Graham said. “They took the handcuffs off me. In this defense, man, you can’t ask for nothing better. It’s a D-lineman’s dream. I’m just happy to be the first person to be a part of it when they transitioned to the new coach. I had Schwartz back at the Senior Bowl. That was my first taste of it and I never got back to it until now. It’s pretty cool to be able to pick up where I left off and have success.”
In his eighth season, Graham led the Eagles with 9.5 sacks, a new career-high.
“It didn’t happen early on, but I knew once I got my opportunity, when I wasn’t hurt, that I was going to excel,” Graham said. “And if I get the right coach to back me, I’ll be fine. That happened for me, especially last year. That was really the first year I felt as comfortable as I could, being in Jim Schwartz’s scheme. It was a good feeling.”
Schwartz is thrilled for Graham’s success, not only a professional level, but also a personal one.
“He’s just an outstanding person, as well,” Schwartz said. “He’s a good family man. He’s just a good guy. He’s not just defined by being a football player. He’s really proud to be from Detroit, he’s proud to be from the University of Michigan and he’s proud to be an Eagle. I think those are his groups. He’s a guy who remembers where he’s from.”
As if he could hear Schwartz five podiums down, above all the hoopla of Super Bowl Opening Night, Graham wore his passion for his hometown on his sleeve.
“I love Detroit,” Graham said. “Right now, we’re up and coming. We coming back. It means a lot, especially because I was born and raised there. A lot of people dog Detroit. And to see Detroit now, getting that respect, I’m loving it. I’m always representing, good or bad, but it’s always in my heart.
“Everybody knows about the PAL organization,” he said. “And to know that I made it to the Super Bowl, and if I can inspire someone to keep living your dream, and keep working even if it seems sometimes like that window of opportunity is closing, just never give up.”