With so many hybrid rushers in this year's draft, it seems more likely that the Bengals turn to free agency to fix their pass rush problem.
Justin Houston and Pierre-Paul were both franchise-tagged on Monday, but the free agent pass rusher class is still loaded. At the top, there's also Jerry Hughes, Pernell McPhee, and Greg Hardy. Hughes, a 4-3 defensive end from Buffalo, would be a perfect fit for the Bengals. However, he is expected to get around $9 million per year, which is more than the Bengals offered to their own stud defensive ends, Michael Johnson and Carlos Dunlap. That puts Hughes outside of the Bengals price range. Similarly, Baltimore's McPhee is expected to get around $10 million per year. Hell would freeze over before the Bengals actually sign either of these high-priced players.
Then, there's Greg Hardy, an extremely productive 4-3 defensive end from Carolina. He would fit the Bengals needs very well, and may even come at a discount due to his legal history. Instead of getting into a massive debate about Hardy's innocence, let's just leave it at the fact that Hardy comes with major character red flags. The Bengals will have to make a conscious choice between character and football need, as explained in a well-written post by our own Anthony Cosenza. Head Coach Marvin Lewis recently stated that the team has shied away from taking players with character issues because "we can't change them". Lewis' recent stance against adding these type of players makes it seem unlikely that Hardy is signed by the team, but it's still possible.
After eliminating these top-five pass rushers, plenty of good pass rushers remain. This middle-tier of free agent pass rusher is where the Bengals will look most diligently.
Today, we'll look at Brandon Graham, who is also looking for a decent amount of money. However, he fits the Bengals needs so perfectly (and the Bengals have enough cap space) that it's still possible that the Bengals sign him anyways.
Height/weight: 6'2, 265 pounds
Previous position: 3-4 right outside linebacker (Philadelphia Eagles)
2014 Pass rush numbers: 6 sacks, 8 hits, & 37 hurries from 225 pass rush snaps (57% right side)
For the last few years, Graham has been an extremely effective pass rusher coming off the bench behind Trent Cole. In 2014, his 51 total pressures in only 225 pass rush snaps placed Graham as the most productive pass rusher in the league, according to Pro Football Focus's pass rush productivity formula. Graham placed seventh among 3-4 outside linebackers with this formula in 2013, but his productivity in 2012 was even more impressive. That year, the Eagles used a 4-3 defense, in which Graham was a left end. Graham posted 7 sacks, 7 hits, and 31 hurries in a limited number of snaps, making him (again) the most efficient pass rusher at his position.
Graham fits perfectly with the Bengals because he could be easily slide into Robert Geathers' old role as the first pass rusher to come off the bench when Domata Peko is sent to the sidelines on obvious pass rushing downs. Geathers finished 2014 with only 1 sack and 21 additional pressures from a whopping 393 pass rush snaps. He finished last among all 4-3 defensive ends with at least 300 pass rush snaps in pass rush productivity. Switching from Geathers to Graham is a simple move that would have massive positive effects.
Even though Graham just comes off the bench for Philadelphia as a pass rusher, he's not weak as a run defender. His +6.5 grade in run defense last year ranked 7th among all 3-4 outside linebackers. Graham, at a short and stout 265 pounds, has the thick body and low pad level to set the edge in run defense. Although Graham's primary role would be as a pass rusher from the right defensive end spot in the Bengals nickel defense, he could easily work into the Bengals rotation on first and second down as well. He also has the versatility to rush as a defensive tackle.
Signing Brandon Graham could be, possibly, the single best move the Bengals make this offseason; but will the Bengals spend the cash to do it? According to Comcast SportsNet Philadelphia, Graham is "seeking a four-year deal in the $30 million neighborhood, with $20 million guaranteed."
That comes out to $7.5 million per year, with a large percentage of it guaranteed. Carlos Dunlap's deal in 2013 was about $39.4 million over 5 years, with only 30 percent guaranteed. It's important to note that the number that Graham provided is what his side is asking for, not what he's actually going to get. Graham will need to drop his asking price significantly for the Bengals to consider signing him, but it's still a possible deal. It would be one of the biggest contracts given to an outside free agent in the Marvin Lewis era. The team has been burned almost every time they've chosen to go after a big outside free agent (Antonio Bryant, Antwan Odom), but Graham is an established pass rusher and has not been injury prone throughout his career. For reference, the Bengals signed defensive end Antwan Odom to a 5-year deal worth $29.5 million in 2008. If Graham brings his asking price down to this range, he would be a viable candidate for the stingy Bengals front office to pursue. If signed, the Bengals pass rush rotation would drastically improve and the Bengals could focus on other positions in this year's draft.
Let's take a look at a few distinctive plays from Brandon Graham to get a better idea of the type of player he is.
Coincidentally, Brandon Graham's best career game came was against the Bengals in Week 16 of 2012. Graham finished the day with 2.5 sacks, 1 forced fumble, 5 QB hurries, and 3 run stops. We'll look at three plays from this game to show Graham's complete skill set.
Graham was the left end in the Eagles' 4-3 defense in 2012, therefore he spent most of his day working against Andre Smith. On the play below, Graham (#54) displays leverage, technique, power, and hustle. Graham sets up his rush to the outside, then makes a strong initial punch to the Smith's chest. Smith, listed at 340 pounds on the Bengals website, is knocked back by Graham's strength and barely even gets his hands on him. Smith, now off balance, doesn't keep his feet moving and allows Graham to dip around Smith's outside shoulder. At this point, Graham shows his hustle and closing speed by diving and tripping Dalton by his ankles. Later in the game, Graham beats Smith for a strip-sack with almost the exact same move, but it's not shown because Smith tripped over the running back.
In the third quarter, Graham gets his half-sack with a burst of raw power. Smith weighs 70 more pounds than Graham, but that doesn't slow Graham down. Again, Graham starts with a slow outside rush, then plants his left foot in the ground and jolts Smith backwards with a strong punch. Graham displays excellent technique and leverage by keeping his hands inside to control Smith. Like Geno Atkins, Graham takes advantage of his short stature, abusing linemen with a low pad level and perfect leverage. To finish off the play, Graham disengages Smith with a swim move to close on the young, panicking Andy Dalton.
Towards the end of the game, Graham shows his ability to stack and shed as a run defender as well. Graham certainly isn't as dominant as a run defender, but he has the stoutness and strength to seal the edge well enough. On this play, Graham stacks up Jermaine Gresham at the snap, then easily sheds Gresham to make a play in the backfield. Gresham looks like he had no idea what just happened.
Now, let's fast forward to Week 16 of the 2014 season to get see Brandon Graham in a recent game. Graham racked up the hits and hurries in this game, but had one of his worst games as a run defender. Philadelphia's normal starting right outside linebacker, Trent Cole, was hurt for this game. Graham played all 60 snaps, and the large workload appeared to affect him on several plays as a run defender. That shouldn't be a problem if Graham were to join Cincinnati's rotation.
On the play below, Graham (now #55) is working against Trent Williams, one of the best left tackles in the league. Graham lines up in a two-point stance (standing up), as almost all 3-4 linebackers do. Graham lulls Williams to sleep with a casual rush inside with his right shoulder pushing against Williams' chest. Just as Williams bumps into Graham's teammate Fletcher Cox, Graham spins to the outside and has a free rush to take a big shot on Robert Griffin III. Graham is only 26 years old but in his 6th NFL season. He demonstrates some veteran savvy with this sly move.
Although Graham has been rushing mostly from a two-point stance in his last two seasons, he was extremely productive lining up in a three-point stance in 2012. Changing his stance to fit in the Bengals 4-3 defense shouldn't be much of a big deal for a versatile player like Graham.
On the next play, Graham shows off an impressive swim move when the backup left tackle had to come into the game for a few plays. Graham set up an outside rush then plants his right food hard into the ground and explodes inside as he swims his right hand over the backup lineman's head. The offensive tackle tries to hold Graham from behind, but Graham gets another hit on the quarterback. Graham's pass rushing arsenal in very deep. He uses power bull rushes, outside dip moves, spin moves, swim moves, and hustle sacks. This arsenal is the reason that Graham has been one of the most efficient pass rushers in the league over the last three years.
Finally, on the last play, Alfred Morris beats Graham to the corner and turns it upfield for a 28-yard touchdown. From the broadcast angle, it looked like Graham really should have made the play. But, from the end zone angle, you can see that Graham defends his gap properly. If he was a bit more athletic and agile, he might have made that tackle. The linebacker (#50) is more responsible for this play, because the runner cuts through his gap. Regardless, this play shows that Graham isn't a perfect player. He isn't a fluid, freaky athlete. He's a wide-bodied, densely-built, football player.
The Eagles used Graham in many different ways in their 3-4 scheme. In 2014, he dropped into coverage on 14% of his total snaps. He also occasionally lined up as a base 4-3 end with his hand in the dirt. He was even used inside as a 3-4 defensive end on some plays. This just goes to show that he has the versatility that the Bengals look for in their defensive ends.
Graham has only started seven games in the last four years, perhaps due to questions about his conditioning and ability as a run defender. With such limitations and lack of experience as a starter, he might have trouble getting the $7.5 million per year that he wants. On the other hand, teams are using advanced analytics now and will know that Graham is one of the most efficient pass rushers in the league. Maybe a team will overpay him for his pure pass rushing ability.
If Graham has trouble finding a suitor and makes it to the second week of free agency, talks between he and Cincinnati could heat up. It could just be a pipe dream, but it's definitely possible that Brandon Graham ends up in stripes.