Brandon Graham has been around so long that when he was a rookie he held out during training camp and no one batted an eye.
The year was 2010, before the NFL’s collective bargaining agreement was restructured, and Graham missed the first three days as the Eagles and his agent, Joel Segal, negotiated his first contract. It was commonplace for top draft picks to miss time then until the new CBA the following year eliminated most of the wiggle room in rookie deals.
When Graham finally landed at training camp at Lehigh University after signing a five-year, $21 million contract, he showed up in a new midnight blue Porsche. His late arrival may have been glitzy, but the defensive end brought his lunch pail to the field and was toasting right tackle Winston Justice after just a few practices.
Graham has seemingly lived several football lives in the intervening eight years. He’s been the budding star; the injured disappointment; the first-round bust; the scheme-change casualty; the comeback kid; the success story; and the Super Bowl hero. After Jason Peters, he is the second longest-tenured Eagle.
But the 30-year-old Graham is in the final year of his second contract, and with an ankle injury seemingly holding up talks of an extension, it’s possible he heads into the coming season without any assurances beyond 2018. And the Eagles risk losing one of their defensive cornerstones and leaders next offseason.
Few players hold out anymore. They have little leverage, and that would apply to Graham, as well. But even if the option were presented to him, Graham would appear to have no interest in drawing that line. The Eagles’ success last season and the potential to repeat as champions, he said Thursday, has him willing to play in the last year of his contract.
“You always want to be secure, but I’m OK with whatever because at the end of the day, next week we get that [Super Bowl] ring,” Graham said. “If we didn’t have the team we have then I would say let’s get secure, but we got a great team to do it again. …
“We’ll get [the contract] done however it go. I’m 30 years old and I understand this is a business, too. But I got to keep showing them that I’m just going to keep taking it up and go out on my terms.”
In February, Graham told NBCSports Philly that if the Eagles “want me here, they’re going to make sure they get me here.” He spoke of his passion, of his role in helping the franchise win its first Super Bowl, and of his desire to retire as an Eagle.
But his stance, at least publicly, has softened in four months. It’s likely that a May 1 ankle surgery has him singing a slightly different tune. Graham played through a high sprain in the postseason. After the Super Bowl, doctors said he should just let it naturally heal.
When he resumed running and working out, however, the pain returned. The surgery was to clean out and tighten up the ankle, Graham said, and he would need three months to heal. The crutches will be gone next week, and soon the boot, and if all goes according to plan, he could be back by the early portion of camp, which starts in late July.
But there aren’t guarantees, especially with age. Graham turned 30 in April, and as he conceded, that benchmark can be a leveraging chip. But hitting 30 isn’t the same for defensive ends as it is for, say, running backs. The Eagles, for instance, traded for 32-year-old Michael Bennett in March.
“I feel you. I feel you,” Graham said when Bennett’s age was brought up. “He’s 32. So it’s just all about what you want to do.”
For the Eagles, and specifically executive Howie Roseman, the challenge of extending Graham is whether to pay him, in part, for his past accomplishments or for what he can achieve as he enters his early 30s.
Graham finished last season with a team- and career-high 9.5 sacks and 16 tackles for losses. Despite the ankle injury, he had 13 hurries in the postseason and the most important sack in team history – a late-fourth-quarter takedown of Tom Brady that forced a fumble and that, Graham revealed Thursday, came with a hamstring strain he suffered earlier in the game.
In late March, the last time Roseman spoke of Graham, he acknowledged the end’s contributions but he also mentioned salary cap considerations. The Eagles have about $6.1 million in space after linebacker Mychal Kendricks was released last month.
“I hate to see anybody go that I’ve been here with for a long time,” Graham said. “I know Kendricks – he gave his all. Sometimes it’s just a business. I understand it. I’ve seen a lot of guys go that I loved playing with.”
Roseman certainly has enough space to get creative this year, but he does have Carson Wentz’s likely franchise-quarterback extension next offseason to bear in mind. Graham took a team-friendly deal in March 2015 – four years, $26 million – in the midst of his three years as a 3-4 outside linebacker.
After the return to a 4-3 scheme and arguably his best season, Graham stayed away from voluntary organized team activities for a week last year. He denied an Inquirer report that his absence was contract-related, but he later confessed that he had hoped to send a message, and ultimately he got the Eagles to tweak his contact to include incentives.
Graham is slated to earn $7 million in base salary this season. His $6.5 million per-year average is 32d among NFL edge rushers, and still behind the less-productive Vinny Curry, who was released by the Eagles in March and signed by the Buccaneers.
Curry is just the latest defensive end to come and go during Graham’s tenure. Bennett’s expiring contract suggests that his stay in Philly could be brief. The 33-year-old Chris Long has mulled retirement the last two offseasons.
The Eagles have Derek Barnett poised to become the top edge rusher, and rookie Josh Sweat and a few other youngsters have potential. But there isn’t wishing and hoping with Graham, who has missed only one game over the last six seasons. If he is going to decline over the next few years, there have been few, if any, signs.
“I’m just excited because I got another year to play here,” Graham said. “It’s Year 9 for me. I got another opportunity to go get this ring. I let stuff happen the way it’s supposed to happen. When it do happen, trust me, you’ll know.”