When Brandon Graham was a rookie at Eagles training camp, he would often shake the hand of, high-five, or hug every reporter after practice. The ever-smiling 2010 top draft pick would answer every question, and the thinking then was, if he plays as well as he handles the media, he should do just fine.
It wasn’t that easy, however.
For various reasons – injury, coaching turnover, schematic changes – Graham struggled through his first several NFL seasons. And when he was first available for free agency, it seemed all but certain that the edge rusher and the Eagles would part ways.
They did not, of course, and it was a good thing for both as Graham would go on to deliver upon his promise and the Eagles would receive, among many great moments, the most significant defensive play in franchise history.
But this good thing will apparently have its proverbial end next month, when Graham enters again into free agency. He will turn 31 in May and is coming off a subpar season, but he’s still productive, plays a premier position, and is looking to compensate after arguably outplaying his previous contract.
“I understand where I’m at,” Graham said last month. “I ain’t going to be silly now because I know I only got so many years to do this.”
Graham wouldn’t use the phrase home discount when discussing possible negotiations with Eagles executive Howie Roseman, but he did say that he would be willing to take less to stay. He threw the amount of $2 million out there, but he didn’t specify if he meant per year or overall.
“I love Philly. People know I love Philly. My first priority is to make sure we can work something out because, obviously, I respect that they drafted me here,” Graham said. “Howie – I was his first guy [he drafted as general manager]. We got unfinished business so, hopefully, we can get it done.”
Roseman’s reluctance to work out a deal before last season, however, all but signaled an eventual departure. Graham may have had more leverage coming off the 2017 season, but the Eagles know the market as well as any team, and top-tier, durable defensive ends are always hot commodities.
In Roseman’s defense, Graham’s health factored into the decision. He was recovering from an ankle injury and didn’t undergo surgery – for unknown reasons – until May. Graham returned by the start of the season and didn’t miss a game, but he agreed that the short offseason affected his performance.
“I know for sure this offseason I’m about to get back to where I know I can be,” Graham said the day after the Eagles’ season ended. This year it was a little tough, he said, because he didn’t have as much time for offseason preparation as a result of the surgery.
“I think for the most part I did good with my mentality. I feel like I pushed through. I didn’t miss a practice.”
Graham finished the season with his lowest number of sacks (four), tackles for losses (12), and forced fumbles (one) in five seasons. But he had as many quarterback pressures (77) as he averaged during his previous three seasons (73), according to Pro Football Focus.
He also had to adjust to rushing more from the right (67 percent of the time) against left tackles than he ever had in a 4-3 scheme. But the film doesn’t lie, and many NFL evaluators still view Graham as an elite talent.
“I don’t know what all goes into it,” Graham said of free agency. “This is my second rodeo, but the first time it was so quick because I knew I wanted to be back in Philly. … I’m going to see what’s out there.”
When Graham re-signed with the Eagles in 2015, then-coach Chip Kelly oversaw personnel, and some thought the four-year, $26 million contract he received was over market. The New York Giants, who had offered a one-year, “show-me” deal, were later revealed to be the only other early bidders.
Four years later, more than just two teams should be in the mix. There is speculation that the deep edge-rusher market could lower Graham’s price – with Demarcus Lawrence, Jadeveon Clowney, Frank Clark, and Dee Ford also slated to become free agents – but the Cowboys, Texans, Seahawks, and Chiefs, respectively, are all reportedly expected to use their franchise tag on each player.
Which would possibly make Graham the No. 1 edge rusher when the new league year opens on March 13. He could stand to earn upward of $13 million to $14 million a year, which would easily price out the Eagles, who have many difficult decisions to make, especially if they end up extending quarterback Carson Wentz’s contract.
Graham is almost four years older than the oldest of the four aforementioned edge rushers, and he’s significantly older than second-tier names such as Dante Fowler and Shane Ray. But he hasn’t logged as many miles as some his age, because he played sparingly in his first five seasons, and he’s been a far better run-stopper than most.
The Eagles still have Derek Barnett, Michael Bennett, and Chris Long under contract, but Barnett is coming off two surgeries from last year (sports hernia and torn rotator cuff) and Bennett and Long, as effective as they were in 2018, will each turn 34 this year.
The defensive line is considered one of the deeper positions in the coming draft, but replacing Graham would go beyond his production on the field. He’s one of those rare by-example and by-word leaders.
He may have stopped hugging reporters daily long ago, but Graham was an omnipresent figure in the Eagles locker room, never one to shirk his role as a team spokesman, even in the lowest of moments.
As the last few players emptied their stalls at the NovaCare Complex after the playoff loss to the Saints, Graham joked around with reporters until access ended.
“I’m glad I’m taking my time leaving to go home because when you leave from here and go home, it’s like, man, next time you come back it’s usually when the team comes back,” Graham said. “Hopefully, they don’t have to mail me my stuff from my locker.”