Trent Cole is declining. The nine-year veteran has had one hell of a career with the Philadelphia Eagles, but with just three sacks in his last 22 games dating back to the start of 2012, it appears Cole has started to run out of gas.
Philadelphia's defensive transition hasn't done the 31-year-old any favors, but he's now had six games to adapt to a role for which he actually should be quite well suited. Instead, he's had zero sacks and only 17 quarterback pressures on 180 pass-rushing snaps, which according to Pro Football Focus (subscription required) makes him the second-least productive pass-rushing 3-4 outside linebacker in football.
This is where things go from sad to worse, though, because the only player Cole ranks ahead of in that category is fellow Eagles starting outside linebacker Connor Barwin. At least Barwin has three sacks, but he's only been able to get pressure 11 other times in six games, per PFF.
As a result, the Eagles' pass rush has been dreadful, obviously. They have only 13 sacks through six weeks, which on a per-game basis ranks ahead of only six other teams. And they're tied for 27th in the league when it comes to sack percentage.
It's time to mix things up. It's time for more Brandon Graham.
The 2010 first-round pick has been on the field for only 26 percent of Philly's defensive snaps this season—that, despite the fact he was actually the league's most productive pass-rusher among 4-3 defensive ends who took at least 25 percent of their teams' snaps in 2012, according to PFF.
Yeah, new position. But Cole is facing the same problem. And Graham stood up as a 3-4 outside 'backer enough at Michigan that I'm sure he can manage.
In fact, he has thus far, in a limited sample size. Unlike Cole, Graham actually has a sack, despite a 237-snap disadvantage. And when you change PFF's signature stat qualifications to include those who have played fewer than 50 percent of their teams' snaps, he's ranked as the 13th-most productive pass-rushing 3-4 outside linebacker in the league, 23 spots ahead of Cole and 24 ahead of Barwin.
Since Week 2, Graham's snaps have increased consistently but marginally, from 16 to 17 to 21 to 22 to 24. Sunday's game in Tampa marked the first time he's been on the field for more than 30 percent of Philly's defensive snaps, but he's still on the sideline two-thirds of the time.
Maybe Graham just hasn't done enough in practice to merit an increased role on Sundays. Maybe that's the same reason why second-year defensive end Vinny Curry has largely been ignored despite producing nine pressures on only 64 snaps this season, which PFF ranks first among all 3-4 defensive ends.
But some guys just don't practice well. At some point, you've gotta have faith.
More acutely, it could be that the Eagles don't trust Graham in coverage or as a run defender, but it's not as though Barwin is particularly good against the run, and Cole has been beaten all three times he's been targeted in coverage this season. Barwin is strong in coverage and Cole is a good run defender, but we haven't seen enough of Graham to know what he might be able to offer in those areas.
And ultimately, taking a rare, small hit in one of those two areas could be worth the boost Philly's pass rush receives. At the very least, there should be very few obvious passing situations in which Graham isn't present.
The Eagles have indicated they're happy with Cole, and they haven't complained about Barwin. They're utilizing those guys in nontraditional ways, which is cute. The problem is that the broad results haven't been good. This is a D that has surrendered 179 points, which is the third-highest total in the league, behind only the New York Giants and Jacksonville Jaguars, who are a combined 0-12.
The point is, it really can't get a lot worse, so you might as well take a chance and roll the dice on a guy who's only 25 years old and possesses a ton of talent. This defense has finally begun to force some turnovers, but they're still lacking killer instinct and there are still some major questions regarding that leaky secondary.
The Eagles are in a position in Chip Kelly's first season to make a surprising push for the playoffs, but they'll have to pull out all the stops in order to survive on defense. Against a very good Dallas Cowboys offense in Week 7, and with Dallas likely leaning heavily on the pass without running back DeMarco Murray, it might be time for Graham to finally gain some consistent pass-rushing opportunities in Philly's base defense.