ORLANDO – Ten days after Brandon Graham made the biggest play in Super Bowl LII, the Eagles defensive end said that he wanted a new contract.
Two weeks later, Howie Roseman said that Graham “certainly deserves the opportunity to get more” money. The Eagles executive also said that he hoped Graham finished his career in Philadelphia, adding that the team had a “great relationship” with its 2010 first-round draft pick.
But Roseman said nothing of the difficulties the Eagles could potentially face in extending Graham, who is under contract for only one more year.
A month has passed and the two sides are no closer to an agreement. Roseman didn’t get into specifics about negotiations on Monday at the NFL owners meetings, but after affirming that Graham was a priority, he cited the challenges that could impede getting a deal done.
“Brandon is a hugely valuable part of our team,” Roseman said. “Obviously, he’s in the last year of his deal and he’s one of the most productive players at his position. He deserves whatever he can get. At the same time, we have a cap and we’re trying to fit everyone in. We’re trying to fit as many good players.
“We went through this yesterday – we have a lot of players who are under contract, not only for 2018, 2019, but when we get into the 2020s, and they’re good players. We want to keep as many of them around as possible and add players on top of it. That’s a challenge, that’s a puzzle that we’re trying to figure out. But it’s a good problem to have.”
It’s a problem all successful teams face and one Roseman must navigate if the Eagles – who currently have about $5 million in cap space — are to become perennial Super Bowl contenders. Whom do you keep? Which of your foundational players do you compensate? And how can you keep the business side from affecting the locker room and coach Doug Pederson’s ability to keep the team focused on the field?
Roseman has already released longtime Eagles such as defensive end Vinny Curry and tight end Brent Celek. But he has also, dating back to November, awarded long-term contracts to recently acquired Eagles such as defensive tackle Tim Jernigan, wide receiver Alshon Jeffery, and linebacker Nigel Bradham.
Jernigan and Jeffery were pending free agents and Bradham had hit the market, increasing the urgency to retain them. But the Eagles have also extended defensive end Chris Long for one more year.
A restructuring for Graham would be for more money and years, thus complicating negotiations. But if he were to feel slighted in any way, it would be understandable. Since Graham last signed a four-year contract, in 2015, the Eagles have handed out mega-deals to defensive tackle Fletcher Cox, Curry, and Jernigan despite similar cap constrictions.
Curry, who hasn’t come close to matching Graham’s production over the last three seasons, even signed another deal with the Buccaneers (three years, $27 million) that averages $2.5 million more per year than Graham’s contract.
With the trade for Michael Bennett, Graham is the fourth-highest-paid defensive lineman on the Eagles. And in a few years, second-year defensive end Derek Barnett is projected to earn the big payday Graham didn’t get after his first contract because of injuries and a scheme change.
Graham’s next deal is likely his last opportunity to cash in. But he shouldn’t have as much urgency as the Eagles to negotiate now. If he enters the coming season without a contract, Roseman risks losing him next offseason unless he’s willing to use the franchise tag that should be worth as much $19 million.
The Eagles aren’t yet at the point of no return. But with the start of the offseason program a little over two weeks away, and Graham free to stay away from voluntary workouts if he wants to apply pressure, Roseman may feel compelled to expedite the process.
He faced similar circumstances with Cox two years ago and tackle Jason Peters last year, and in both cases, extensions were worked out by June.
When Peters signed his contract, he credited owner Jeffrey Lurie with helping to close to deal. Asked if he would take a similar role with a core franchise player like Graham, Lurie downplayed his influence and emphasized his trust in Roseman and his people.
“They know my philosophy with these kinds of players. You want to try to have them as long as you can have them — as long as it benefits the team,” Lurie said. “You can’t be in a situation where just because they’ve been an incredible player for you that you’re going to have them as they get closer and closer to retirement.”
Graham’s stellar 2017 season suggests that he isn’t close to retirement. He set a career high with 9.5 sacks and was in the top five for quarterback pressures among NFL edge rushers for the second straight year. And yet he is still the 32nd-highest-paid edge rusher in the league.
The Eagles’ primary concern, as Lurie’s statement implied, is with Graham’s age. He will turn 30 on Tuesday. Do the Eagles pay Graham for what he has done pre-30 or for what he may do post-30, when players’ careers typically decline, sometimes sharply?
Long’s 2017 showed that some edge rushers don’t necessarily fall under the same category, and the Eagles’ extension of the 33-year old and their acquisition of Bennett further demonstrate that they subscribe to that theory.
Last month, Pederson said that he was comfortable going to Roseman about integral players such as Graham and stressing their importance to the team both on the field and off. Graham not only plays a premium position at an elite level, but he is one of the Eagles’ leaders.
But Pederson altered his tune on Tuesday and deferred to Roseman, even if he were to be without Graham during spring practices.
“We all know we want him. That’s a given. We’ll do everything we can,” Pederson said. “But that’s one of those down-the-hall questions.”
How much longer will the question remain unanswered?