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Even with Brandon Graham returning, the Eagles could take a defensive lineman early in draft

With an exceptionally deep draft class, it's very much a possibility the Eagles use a higher pick on a pass rusher now that they don't need to pursue one in free agency.

Brandon Graham (center) tries to grab a loose ball as the Saints' Drew Brees watches during the Eagles' loss in the playoffs to New Orleans. Graham agreed to a contract extension on Friday, but that doesn't mean the Eagles won't look into a deep draft class.
Brandon Graham (center) tries to grab a loose ball as the Saints' Drew Brees watches during the Eagles' loss in the playoffs to New Orleans. Graham agreed to a contract extension on Friday, but that doesn't mean the Eagles won't look into a deep draft class.Read moreDAVID MAIALETTI / Staff Photographer

INDIANAPOLIS – The Eagles’ re-signing of Brandon Graham Friday had a lot of draftniks rushing to their laptops to delete that defensive lineman they had them taking with their first-round pick next month.

A word of warning: That might be a little premature.

While the three-year, $40 million extension the soon-to-be 31-year-old defensive end signed with the only NFL team he’s ever played for almost certainly means the Eagles won’t be pursuing a top-tier edge-rusher next month when the league’s free-agent signing period kicks off, it’s likely to have little effect on the possibility of them taking one with either the 25th overall pick in the draft or, at the very least, with one of their two second-round picks.

As just mentioned, Graham soon will turn 31. His new deal has made him richer but not younger. Michael Bennett is 33. Chris Long turns 34 next month. In all likelihood, Graham is the only one of the three who still will be around for the start of the 2020 season.

Derek Barnett is coming off major shoulder surgery. Josh Sweat still is very much an unknown commodity.

Fletcher Cox is the second best defensive tackle in football. But their other defensive tackle, Tim Jernigan, missed most of last season after having back surgery and has an unacceptable $13 million cap number in 2019.

The defensive line crop in this year’s draft is considered the best in at least a decade, maybe longer. Given the straw-that-stirs-the-drink importance Jim Schwartz places on his front four, it’s hard to believe they would pass on a primo pass rusher in the first round just because they re-signed Graham.

For reasons that make sense only to the Eagles, executive vice-president of football operations Howie Roseman declined to speak to reporters Friday about the Graham signing. But earlier in the week, he said the team doesn’t look at its roster through a one-year window.

So, while bringing Graham back helps them in the short term, adding another young defensive lineman in the draft would help fortify the future.

“We’re continually trying to figure out where we are not only this year but a few years out and kind of anticipate some of that," he said.

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It’s uncertain what, if any, effect Graham’s signing will have on Bennett and Long. Both played well last season, especially Bennett, who had nine sacks and 78 total quarterback pressures, according to Pro Football Focus, which tied him for the fourth-most in the league behind Aaron Donald (113), Cox (101) and the Chiefs’ Dee Ford (83).

Long, who had 98 fewer pass-rush opportunities than Bennett last season, had 6½ sacks, which was his most since 2013, and 62 total pressures.

Neither Bennett’s nor Long’s 2019 cap numbers are particularly onerous. Bennett’s is $7.2 million, and Long’s is $5.6 million.

But Bennett wasn’t a big fan of Schwartz’s rotation plan. He played just 69 percent of the snaps last year after playing 85 percent the year before with the Seahawks.

And Long hasn’t said yet whether he definitely wants to play another year. The NFL’s Walter Payton man of the year said after the season that he wasn’t interested in coming back just to be “a locker room guy."

“I don’t really know" what’s going to happen with other guys, Graham said Friday on a conference call with reporters. "We’ve got some great players, and I hope to play with all of them.

“I didn’t think I was going to be a part of it. I didn’t know what was going to happen. You don’t really know how people feel about you until they show you by how much they’re going to pay you."

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The Eagles fired defensive line coach Chris Wilson after the season and replaced him with Phillip Daniels, who had been Wilson’s assistant. Daniels played 14 seasons in the league.

“I know they got a good plan going in, and I’m hoping people [like Barnett] jump from Year 1 to Year 2," Graham said. “I know Derek is itching to come back strong. We got a bunch of good guys who can compliment each other well. We just have to make sure we play together.”

Graham only had four sacks last season, which was his fewest since 2013. But his 77 total quarterback pressures were the seventh-most in the NFL and just one fewer than Bennett.

He had a season-high 11 pressures in the Eagles’ critical 32-30 Week 16 win over Houston, which kept their playoff hopes alive, and led the team in postseason sacks with 1½.

Because of his age and lean career sack total – he has just 42½ sacks in nine seasons – it’s hard to know what another team might have been willing to offer Graham.

He probably could have gotten a little more than the Eagles gave him. But Graham is a smart guy who understands the grass isn’t always greener somewhere else.

“I feel this is a great scheme fit for me here," he said. “To be able to find the right one, when you do, that’s usually the one you want to stay with."

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Graham’s re-signing could shift the Eagles’ draft interest from an edge rusher to a defensive tackle, or at least someone who can play both inside and outside.

They traded for Jernigan in 2017 hoping he could team with Cox inside to give the Eagles’ a lethal pocket-collapsing tandem.

But Jernigan struggled a bit making the adjustment to Schwartz’s one-gap wide-nine scheme in 2017 and then missed most of last season recovering from back surgery.

Because Schwartz doesn’t like to blitz, the Eagles are susceptible to a quick passing game if they don’t get inside pressure.

Cox gets double-teamed on almost every play, and the Eagles need someone at the other tackle spot who can take advantage of one-on-one matchups, particularly against quarterbacks who get the ball out fast.

Schwartz used Bennett a lot at tackle last year and may do the same again this year, depending on what happens with Jernigan. Graham also can line up inside.

“Over the years, I’ve talked to almost every top quarterback in the NFL, and I’ve asked them all the same question: what bothers you the most?" said Oakland Raiders general manager Mike Mayock.

“Almost every top-flight quarterback says the same thing: immediate pressure up the middle. If you have a couple of good edge rushers, you can step up inside the pocket if it’s sound up front.

“But if you’re getting push [up the middle], that’s difficult. It disturbs sight lines. It forces you to readjust your feet. We’re at the point now where people are throwing the ball so much that you have to find a way to affect it. So there’s more emphasis on inside guys. It’s at least equal to the outside guys."

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