By all accounts, Trent Cole and Connor Barwin were the two guys most frequently working as "starters" at outside linebacker for the Philadelphia Eagles throughout OTAs and minicamps. This has led to some questions about the role of 2010 first-round draft pick Brandon Graham, who played very well as a 4-3 defensive end last year but appears to be behind those other two in the pecking order heading into training camp. Some have asked me whether the Eagles will or should trade Graham. I think not, on both counts.
First of all, we still don't know exactly what to expect from the Eagles' defense in the first year with Chip Kelly as its head coach and Bill Davis as its coordinator. It seems as though they want to run a 3-4 defense, ultimately, but that they're willing to make first-year concessions to accommodate the fact that they inherited 4-3 personnel. They brought in Barwin, who has 3-4 outside linebacker experience, but Cole and Graham have strictly been 4-3 defensive ends and are learning new positions as pass-rushers who now may have coverage responsibilities. In order to ease the transition, it's possible (even likely) that the Eagles could show more 4-3 looks in 2013 than they intend to show in future seasons. Graham could still find himself lining up with his hand in the dirt and launching himself in pursuit of quarterbacks, the way he's used to playing.
Second, consider age here. Graham just turned 25. Barwin is only 26, but Cole turns 31 in October. Graham had the best 2012 season of the three and is also the youngest. Doesn't sound like a guy on whom an organization should be thinking about giving up just because it's asking him to change positions.
Finally, there is cost to consider. And while the Eagles always seem to have plenty of cap room, that's because they plan out their future well. Graham costs $2.9575 million against this year's cap. Cole cost $5.35 million. Barwin costs $1.3 million. Next year, Cole's cap figure goes up to $6.6 million, Barwin's to $4.9 million and Graham's to $3.378 million, meaning he's the cheapest of the Eagles' established pass-rusher options for 2014 at this point. Graham is an unrestricted free agent after the 2014 season, while Cole's cap cost for 2015 is currently sitting at $11.625 million and Barwin's at $6.1 million. If Graham can continue to show what he showed in the second half of 2012, he represents the future at pass-rusher for the Eagles, whether they run a 4-3, a 3-4, a 5-2, a 1-6 or whatever they want to run.
Too many pass-rushers is a good problem to have, so even if Graham stays stuck behind Cole and Barwin on the depth chart throughout training camp, I wouldn't expect the Eagles to be in a rush to dump him. He's talented enough that they should and will find uses for him. His issues his first two years in the league were health issues, not ability ones. I don't think the arrival of Kelly, Davis or Barwin signals the end for Graham in Philadelphia. I think he'll get every chance to show he can handle his position switch and new role, and only if he flops in it will they think about moving on from him.