Ta'Quon Graham has been a Grady Jarrett fan for years. He was a senior at Temple High School in Texas when Jarrett was a dominant force during the Falcons playoff run during the 2016 season, including three sacks Super Bowl LI, but he really took notice of Jarrett's game after enrolling at the University of Texas the following year.
Graham was awed by that Super Bowl performance and several others after, seeing how an interior defensive lineman was so consistently impactful against the run and pass.
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Graham wants to accomplish similar feats at the NFL level and is thankful to see how Jarrett works up close.
The Falcons drafted Graham at No. 148 overall, setting up an ideal situation to learn and study under one of the NFL's best.
"He was a guy that I was watching in college," Graham said just before the Falcons season ended. "With the amount of success he had, especially on that Super Bowl run that they had, that's where a first noticed him. Working with him every day has been great. Having him in the meeting rooms to just talk about being a pro and talk about things you're going through has been huge.
"And, with him being a fifth-round pick and me being a fifth-round pick, I feel like it has been a good thing for me, being his little brother and watching the things he does."
Graham's taller and a bit lighter, but he and Jarrett share playing styles. They both like to apply pressure getting into the offensive backfield and creating havoc, so having Jarrett as a resource and role model – few work harder and are better leaders than the two-time Pro Bowler – has been a great benefit to someone trying to establish himself as a pro and as a quality Falcons contributor. That includes technical work and film study, especially during Jarrett's weekly, in-season pass rush meetings.
Graham pushed to improve and eventually gained traction in the defensive line's rotation in the season's second half. Let's take a look at Graham's rookie campaign, what he learned and where he needs to improve.
A look back
13 games | 309 defensive snaps | 15 tackles | 2 tackles for loss | 0 sacks | 2 QB hits | 5 hurries
What Graham learned in 2021
Graham played all over the Falcons defensive line in 2021 – his detailed snap count is proof of that -- which was a bit of an adjustment for someone who had a primary focus at Texas, with a solid of getting penetration into the backfield. So was the fact he was going against the best of the best every week in the NFL.
"Those double teams are coming different; those blocks are coming different from guys who are older and more seasoned," Graham said. "I had to adjust a little bit, but I feel like I have been getting better every single week."
Getting steadier snaps expedited the acclimation process, especially when we exceeded 20 snaps for the final eight games and 30 the last four. Becoming an integral part of the rotation a sign on progress that produced better performance that was clear on tape.
"I feel like I had a pretty decent rookie year," Graham said. "I made some mistakes I wish I didn't make, but I have learned and, watching the tape, I feel like I'm progressing pretty well."
Areas for improvement
Graham is excited about this offseason, his first prolonged break in years, after spending last winter and spring in the pre-draft process. It's not rest and relaxation he craves. Graham welcomes the time and opportunity to get bigger, stronger and faster, to return better positioned to compete for an expanded role against some of the NFL's best.
He'll also bring his rookie experience with him, which will help handle an 18-game season – college players typically play 12-13 games – and the rigors that come with it.
"The biggest challenge I went through as a rookie was the mental grind," Graham said. "Playing that many more games, while trying to stay focused and ready that whole time, but I have tried to adjust and lean on Grady and Tyeler Davison and guys who have been through it."
There's often a massive jump in output between Years 1 and 2, and such progress would help both Graham and the Falcons, who need solid rotational defensive linemen to aid their quest for better pass rush, run defense and control at the line of scrimmage.
Emulating Jarrett's a good way to go in trying to achieve lofty goals Graham set for himself heading into the 2022 campaign.
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