INDIANAPOLIS — As Howie Roseman and Doug Pederson made clear this week at the NFL combine, the Eagles will have many difficult decisions to make with their Super Bowl-winning roster, but there is one that should be relatively easy: extending Brandon Graham’s contract.
The defensive end is entering the last year of a four-year, $26 million contract he signed in March, 2015. Graham has outplayed the contract, significantly over the last two seasons, and he has publicly stated his desire to be compensated.
It should be a no-brainer for the Eagles to get an extension done this offseason rather than risk losing one of their best players — arguably the heart and soul of the defense — next year in free agency. Roseman, by all indications, understands the urgency.
“Brandon Graham is an unbelievable player, an unbelievable person,” Roseman said Wednesday. “Everyone wants more money. That’s the nature of the business. He certainly deserves the opportunity to get more. We love having him here. We hope he finishes his career as an Eagle. We have a great relationship with him.”
Will that relationship be tested? The Eagles reached out to Graham’s camp during last season, but talks were merely cursory and then eventually shelved until the offseason. While Roseman has many balls in the air, the Eagles’ executive vice president of football operations is expected to make an offer over the next few weeks.
But will his initial bid reflect the 29-year-old Graham’s performance from 2016 to 2017 – when he returned to his natural 4-3 end position – or will it be based upon projections of how he may play as he enters his 30s?
“For me, it’s all about getting as much as you can while you can play because when it’s over, it’s over,” Graham said to NBCSports Philly last month. “I know Howie and those guys, if they want me here, they’re going to make sure they get me here. For me, I want to be here. Everybody knows I want to be here.
“They see the passion I have and I’m happy to be able to bring the trophy back to Philly. Now, it’s just all about making sense, just getting me protected for the future because obviously I want to retire here.”
Graham has yet to be voted to a Pro Bowl, but that says more about the process than it does about his excellence over the last two seasons. He doesn’t have big sack numbers, although his 9-1/2 sacks this season set a career high and earned him an additional $1 million in incentives after the Eagles marginally sweetened his deal last summer.
But Graham has consistently generated pressure as a pass rusher. He has developed into one of the best run-stopping edge defenders in the NFL. And he is often the Eagles’ engine-starter, when they need an early stop, and their finisher, when they need a big play late.
He became a Philly hero when he strip-sacked Tom Brady in one of the biggest plays from Super Bowl LII. Graham’s forced fumble came with a little over two minutes left and all but iced the game. And it came from the fourth highest-paid defensive lineman with the Eagles.
Few could argue with defensive tackle Fletcher Cox’s six-year, $102.6 million contract. A Patriots double-team block on Cox freed up Graham one-on-one before he got to Brady.
Defensive tackle Tim Jernigan signed a four-year, $48 million extension in November, and while the size of that deal is up for debate, the Eagles were locking up a 25-year-old free-agent-to-be based partly upon projection.
But Vinny Curry’s five-year, $46.25 million contract is egregious when compared with that of his fellow defensive end. That discrepancy will be modified, and not just with a Graham extension. Curry is unlikely to return with an $11 million salary cap number. The Eagles could either trade or release him and save only $5 million, or they could paint a scenario in which he agrees to a pay cut.
While Roseman was effusive in his praise when asked about Graham, his plans for Curry struck a different tone.
“We’re going to continue to invest in our defensive line,” Roseman said. “We feel very confident for us to be successful on defense it has to be waves of defensive linemen, that those guys come in fresh, that they’re fastball off the edge and then the inside. You saw, it was certainly a turning point in the game, we couldn’t get home, and then at the end of the game, [Graham] got home. He wasn’t playing 90 percent of the snaps and he had fresh legs at the end
“That’s always going to be a priority. I’m not going to get into specifics about any player. But we’re not going to have less resources on the defensive line.”
Curry had a solid season – his first as a starter. But he has had just 5-1/2 sacks over the last two seasons – nine over his last 50 games – and those kinds of numbers don’t justify his salary, especially with Derek Barnett poised to assume the starting right end spot.
Graham loses a little, in terms of leverage, because he rushes from the left against right tackles and isn’t as disruptive as top left ends like Von Miller and Khalil Mack. But he’s right there at the next tier and could get paid as much as Calais Campbell did when the Jaguars gave the then-31-year-old end a four-year, $60 million contract last offseason.
Graham will turn 30 on April 3, but he has played far fewer snaps than most typical first-round ends. He has missed only one game over the last six seasons, but he became a starter – for coaching and scheme reasons – only three years ago.
And then there are the off-the-field intangibles Graham brings to the Eagles. He is routinely cited as one of the hardest workers on the team. He is a locker room, in-the-huddle leader. And he’s the type of player coach Doug Pederson would rather not irritate, something Pederson said he wouldn’t hesitate to tell Roseman.
“Guys really respect him,” Pederson said. “He was a huge part of the defense. Made the game-winning play basically in the Super Bowl, and he’s certainly valuable to the team.”
It’s time the Eagles showed him.