The start of 2015 NFL free agency on March 10 is less than a month away and it will be here before you know it. In the meantime, athe Philadelphia Eagles have some decisions to make when it comes to keeping their own players. The Jeremy Maclin situation obviously draws the most attention, but the Eagles have an even tougher decision to make on a different former first round pick: Brandon Graham.
According to CSN Philly, Graham is "seeking a four-year deal in the $30 million neighborhood, with $20 million guaranteed." That's the same number CSN Philly referenced when there were reports of the Eagles having contract extension talks with Graham during the season.
$30 million over four years comes out to an average yearly value of $7.5 million. For context, via Over The Cap, only six 3-4 outside linebackers had a higher annual average at the end of 2014: Clay Matthews ($13.2M), Tamba Hali ($11.5M), Brian Orakpo ($11.5M), Jason Worilds ($9.8M), Julius Peppers ($8.7), Paul Kruger ($8.1M). Then there's the 4-3 defensive end market to consider. Those players make even more money. A total of 13 4-3 defensive ends had a higher annual average than $7.5 million at the end of 2014.
When it comes to guaranteed money, only two 3-4 outside linebackers exceed $20 million: 2014 first round pick Jadeveon Clowney and five-time Pro Bowl linebacker Clay Matthews. Four 4-3 defensive ends exceed $20 million with Everson Griffen falling just short at $19.8 million guaranteed.
In other words, Graham won't come cheap. This is to be expected. Despite a limited role, he's been a very productive pass rusher coming off the bench for Philadelphia. In 2014, Graham finished first overall in Pass Rushing Productivity (PRP), which is a stat created by Pro Football Focus. PFF describes PRP as a formula that combines sacks, hits, and hurries (with hits and hurries three quarters the worth) relative to how many times a player rushes the passer. Graham recorded a total of 51 pressures on just 225 pass rush snaps, which is about two pressures for every nine snaps. There's no denying that Graham was critical to an Eagles pass rush unit that recorded an NFL second-best 49 sacks last season. His run defense wasn't bad at all either. Graham finished fourth overall in PFF's Run Stop Percentage, where a stop constitutes a "loss" for the offense. Then there's the fact Graham is also really valuable on special teams.
Failing to keep the 26-year-old Graham, then, could prove costly. The Eagles aren't going to easily be able to replace his production with in-house options. Outside linebacker Connor Barwin had a great season last year but he's only one player. Veteran starter Trent Cole is under contract at nearly $12 million and can be released for a savings of over $8 million. He might be willing to take a pay cut, but it remains to be seen how effective the 32-year-old can still be as a pass rusher. 2014 first round pick Marcus Smith II is a total question mark after only playing 105 total snaps as a rookie.
But even if the Eagles do make Graham an offer that he likes, he likely won't be in any rush to take it. Graham can simply wait until free agency starts and see what the market has to offer. Pass rushers come at a premium, so there will definitely be teams interested in his services. Graham might prefer to play in a 4-3 system where he won't have to drop into coverage as often as he does in the 3-4. With Cole's future with the team unclear, other teams might also be able to play Graham more playing time.
If the Eagles can't keep Graham, they will likely need to address the position in free agency. 3-4 outside linebacker Jason Worilds is the name to watch considering Philadelphia's interest in him last offseason. Baltimore's Pernell McPhee is expected to hit the market and could be an interesting target. Or the Eagles could always just go back to their penchant for scooping up former Texans players and acquire Brooks Reed.
It'll be interesting to see how the situation plays out. As noted as the beginning of this post, there is still over a month until free agency starts so the Eagles will have plenty of time to come up with a plan of attack. With about $19 million in cap space, the team will have options. To be determined if they choose the right ones.