Monday, April 12, 2010
Size aside, Graham seems to be a fit
By Mike Reiss
Curious if the perception matched the reality, Michigan defensive end/outside linebacker Brandon Graham took his seat across from Bill Belichick.
Graham had watched plenty of the New England Patriots over the years, and one thing he could always count on was a sideline shot of Belichick with what seemed like the same facial expression every time. Graham describes it as a "tough-guy look." Steady.
What he quickly discovered from pre-draft meetings with the Patriots, however, is that Belichick behind the scenes is different than Belichick on the sideline.
"He's somebody I'd always watch and you'd always see him with that look, but I saw him open up and laugh a little bit. It made me feel good," Graham said in a Saturday telephone interview from Ann Arbor, Mich.
Now the question is whether Belichick will be looking in Graham's direction April 22, the first day of the NFL draft. The Patriots are in search of a boost to their pass rush and Graham is one of the draft's best, a disruptive player who led the nation in tackles for losses in 2009.
The Patriots have done their due diligence, using one of their allotted 30 pre-draft visits to meet with Graham at Gillette Stadium. That is often an indication of genuine interest, or at least a sign that a player is still under strong consideration this late in the process.
"It's like going out for a job," Graham said of taking visits to teams (he will make six visits). "As soon as you get in, you're talking to a [personnel] director, the head coach, position coaches. They show you around the locker room and stuff like that. They're trying to see what you know and trying to see what kind of person you are and if you're a great fit for their program."
When it comes to fit, Graham represents a prototype test for the Patriots.
At 6-foot-1 3/8, he isn't as tall as the team would prefer its outside linebackers. Height and arm length are considered important at outside linebacker in New England's 3-4 alignment, in part because the outside linebacker needs to see over and battle with tall, rangy offensive tackles and tight ends to locate the ball and shed blocks.
Yet as Patriots director of player personnel Nick Caserio said in a February interview, "There are different ways to skin a cat. You're looking for this ideal. The reality is that sometimes that ideal is hard to find."
Broncos outside linebacker Elvis Dumervil (5-11, 248) is one example of a smaller outside linebacker who has produced big results in a 3-4 defense. Playing with quickness and good leverage, he led the NFL with 17 sacks last season and Graham, who weighs 270 pounds, sees similarities between himself and Dumervil.
If there is one compliment most associated with Graham, it's that his motor never stops running, his football passion born at the age of 7 as a Little League linebacker and running back in Detroit.
When Graham reflects on his football journey, three stories highlight why his approach is all-out, all-the-time.
His first year playing youth football didn't go so well. He walked off the field and was ready to quit but his father, Darrick Walton, talked him out of it by stressing the importance of following through.
Later, when Graham was 11, he broke his leg and foot when mother Tasha's car was struck. A gash on his head required 15 stitches. When Tasha talked to him about repairing the scar, Graham told her it would be with him the rest of his life because it looked tough. "A football scar," he laughed.
Then there was the time he arrived at Michigan for his freshman year at a way-too-heavy 315 pounds, a result of coasting in his final semester of high school. It didn't help that he had been ruled ineligible to participate in spring sports that year for competing in an all-star game in San Antonio.
"I learned a lesson from that -- that I can't take any breaks," Graham said. "I haven't taken one since."
There are no plans to take one when he's drafted, either. Graham said he doesn't follow mock drafts, but he's aware that his name is often associated with the Patriots and would welcome that scenario, especially after sitting across from Belichick.
"After leaving every meeting I've had, people were smiling at the end," he said.
That Belichick was part of that group was surprising to him.
Mike Reiss covers the Patriots for ESPNBoston.com. Follow him on Twitter.