Brandon Graham returned to the Eagles' offseason workouts Tuesday, and while he won't say so, he's underpaid and was well within his rights to miss a week of practices to prove a point to team management.
The defensive end spent last week at home in Detroit, and although workouts are voluntary, two NFL sources told the Inquirer that Graham was staying away - possibly through next week's organized team activities - until the Eagles reworked his contract. Reached by text message last Wednesday, Graham would neither verify nor deny the information.
"Can't talk about contract stuff right now," Graham said then.
But upon his return to Philadelphia, after he sent out a video on social media that showed him walking into the NovaCare Complex, Graham released a statement on Twitter denying that he was unhappy with the four-year, $26 million deal he signed in March 2015.
"I was never holding out," Graham said. "I was in Detroit last week spending some time with my family. I love playing in Philly. I love our fans, and I love this organization. I've never had an issue with my contract. I don't know where that news came from.
"I will be here at OTAs leading the charge and ready to get things started."
Graham's public denial is understandable, expected, and in character for a player who has been an exemplary Eagle and teammate. While he technically wasn't "holding out," even the most steadfast would have had a hard time enduring the backlash he received just from a one-week absence.
But his cause is one worth defending. Graham has outplayed his contract, he's getting paid less than Vinny Curry - who had about half the production in 2016 - and the Eagles are counting on him to deliver again at a premier position in the NFL and especially in Jim Schwartz's defense.
Graham, 29, might not always be a vocal leader, but teammates follow his lead. He's typically one of the first non-quarterbacks in the building. He is also among the most popular players in the locker room. In an informal poll last December, he received the second-highest number of Pro Bowl votes. Restructuring Graham's deal would send a positive message from the front office.
On the field, no defender is as tenacious. As Schwartz said last September, Graham is one of the Eagles' "tempo-setters" for the whole team.
Last week, Howie Roseman reiterated that workouts were not mandatory and that when in attendance Graham has "had a tremendous attitude, tremendous work ethic, and all our conversations with him have been tremendously positive."
Asked if Graham had given the Eagles any indication that he was unhappy with his contract, Roseman told WIP-FM that "he has personally not done that." The Eagles' executive vice president of football operations was then asked if Graham's agent, Joel Segal, had stated as much.
"I don't want to go into contract discussions," Roseman said, "but Brandon has been unbelievably positive about his role on this football team, being here, and I don't get any dissatisfaction at all with him."
A day later, Doug Pederson echoed Roseman's sentiments. The Eagles get it. They acknowledged Graham's importance to the team without underscoring that they essentially maintain leverage - as they would in most contract squabbles since the 2011 collective bargaining agreement.
Graham's case is a strong one, but it isn't a slam dunk because his 2016 sack total (5 1/2) was pedestrian. He more than made up for it with other numbers, however. Graham made 14 tackles for losses, and while tackles and quarterback hurries aren't official statistics, the Eagles credited him with a team-high 30 and a defensive-line-high 64, respectively.
Measured against other edge rushers per snap - the most effective way to gauge production - and using the NFL's compilations for uniformity, Graham was among the NFL's best. Out of 68 who pass- rushed more than Curry's 297 times last season, he was fifth in tackles, sixth in tackles for loss, 18th in hurries, and 46th in sacks.
Curry, by comparison, was 26th in tackles, 26th in hurries, 27th in tackles for losses, and 59th in sacks - numbers that aren't negligible but lacking considering the five-year, $46.5 million contract he signed in February 2016. The elephant in the room, of course, is his deal, which makes him the 12th-highest-paid edge rusher ($9.25 million) in the NFL on a per-year basis.
Graham, on the other hand, is only the 29th-highest paid at his position ($6.5 million). But his value shouldn't be measured as much against the rest of the league as it should against his teammates. He was the best edge rusher on the team last season and should be again.
Curry, who is only two months younger than Graham despite being drafted two years after him, has yet to crack the starting lineup, but he should get the nod out of default this year. But will he start on the left side or will Graham be asked to move over? Aside from a few anomalies like Von Miller, most teams want their No. 1 edge rushers on the right and are typically compensated for routinely having to face left tackles.
The Eagles signed Chris Long in March, but will the 32-year-old veteran be anything more than a fastball on passing downs? Rookie Derek Barnett is the future, but few edge rushers, even ones drafted in the first round, have an immediate impact.
Roseman may not want to set a precedent by giving Graham more money, but there are always exceptions, most recently when the Eagles gave running back Darren Sproles a $500,000 bonus last June in exchange for an additional year.
Two years ago after he was voted to the Pro Bowl following a 14 1/2-sack season, Connor Barwin had nearly $10 million of his contract guaranteed and was given an additional $750,000 that made him the highest-paid edge rusher on the team - to compensate for Graham's new deal.