JACKSONVILLE, Fla. — Calais Campbell, the Professional Football Writers Association defensive player of the year, has a message for Howie Roseman, the association’s executive of the year:
Age is just a number. Pay Brandon Graham.
“The way he played this year,” Campbell said, chuckling, “the Eagles would be smart to take care of that.”
Campbell is 31, but he just had his best season. He collected 14 1/2 sacks, a career high, and at times reminded you of Reggie White, the favorite clergyman of Eagles fans everywhere. The Minister of Defense collected 103 of his 198 sacks after he turned 30.
Graham, 29, is under contract through 2018, when he will hit 30, the NFL’s magic number of diminishment. He and the Eagles were negotiating an extension just a few weeks ago, but those talks apparently have stalled. They cannot resume quickly enough.
The Eagles might have to make some tough choices to keep Graham in the nest. They might have to say goodbye to linebacker Nigel Bradham, a pending free agent; in fact, they might also be planning to say goodbye, because Bradham said last week that the Eagles have not yet approached him with an extension. They might move on from injured left tackle Jason Peters, who will be 36 on Monday; or tight end Brent Celek, who will be 33 on Thursday. But they can’t let Graham go unaddressed.
Graham’s leadership and locker-room voice remind you of Campbell. Both are blessed with remarkable perspective, both are unfailingly inclusive, and both are productive, even if they don’t look much alike. Graham is probably a bit shorter than his listed height, which is 6-foot-2, and a little heavier than his listed weight, which is 265. By contrast, Campbell is a 6-8, 282-pound freak of athleticism — just like Reggie, who was 6-5, 291. And, just like Reggie, Campbell looks as though he’ll still be dropping quarterbacks when he’s in his mid-30s; Reggie had 16 sacks at 37.
Like White, and perhaps like Graham, Campbell doesn’t exactly age. He ripens.
A two-time Pro Bowl player in nine seasons with Arizona, Campbell never had more than nine sacks in a season until he landed on the First Coast. When Campbell signed a four-year, $60 million free-agent contract that brought him $30 million in guaranteed money, no one expected him to lead the Jaguars to their first playoff berth in nine years; and certainly no one expected them to reach the AFC championship game. Campbell is the biggest reason the Jaguars are playing the Patriots in New England on Sunday. He has been a bargain. In his very first game this season, he had four of the team’s 10 sacks and immediately became the mayor of “Sacksonville.” His line anchored the lowest scoring-on defense in the NFL.
Graham’s career followed a similar trajectory. Schematic problems and injuries stymied Graham as a younger player. He managed just 17 sacks in his first five seasons. Now healthy and comfortable, he averaged seven sacks the last three seasons.
He had a career-best 91/2 this season, is a first alternate for the Pro Bowl, and, like Campbell, has been a bargain. He made $6.5 million in 2017 and will cost just $6.75 million next season. He’ll count $7.75 million against the cap, but his cap number would likely shrink if he agreed to an extension.
It should happen sooner than later. His asking price won’t decrease.
Not only did Graham lead the team in sacks, but he also ranked fifth among all defensive ends with 15 tackles for losses. He was seventh last year, with 14. According to Pro Football Focus, among defensive ends Graham was the sixth best in overall play, just ahead of Everson Griffen of the Vikings, whom the Eagles will face Sunday for the NFC title.
Yes, Graham benefited from playing with Pro Bowl tackle Fletcher Cox and the other six linemen in the Eagles’ rotation, but they benefited from playing with him, too. The Birds had a modest 38 sacks this season, tied for 15th, but no team pressured the quarterback more often. All will return next season. They should get only better. So should Graham, who added a Campbell-like dimension to his game: He occasionally played defensive tackle on obvious passing downs.
“I’m a fan of his,” Campbell said. “The way he can rush, both from the inside and the outside. You can tell he’s always playing with a high motor. He’s prepared.”
“I appreciate that compliment because I respect him and his game for sure,” Graham said in a text message. “I have been watching him for a while now.”
Graham had two tackles and no sacks in the divisional win over the Falcons last week, but the team put Matt Ryan on the ground three times. And, on the Falcons’ last play — fourth and goal from the 2 — guess who drew the double team that freed up Bradham to chase Ryan, who, harried, threw high to Julio Jones?
It was Graham, at 29, and getting better every week.
“The guy’s a true pro,” Campbell said. “A guy who plays like that and has a high motor like that? And he isn’t showing any signs of slowing down? If I’m a GM, I’m paying him.”