It would make little sense for Brandon Graham to sign a contract with the Eagles before testing free agency.

The team recently reached out to Graham's agent to open negotiations, which may be the Cinderella story of the year considering how close the former defensive end-turned-linebacker thought he came to getting released or traded before the season.

"It feels good, because at the end of the day I wasn't supposed to be here," Graham said this week. "I'm just happy I changed the opinion of a lot of people. I just kept focusing on what I needed to do and that's work hard and let everything fall into place."

Graham has the opportunity to increase his stock on Saturday, when he starts against the Redskins for the injured Trent Cole, who had surgery on his broken left hand. Further success will only make it difficult for the Eagles to retain their 2010 top draft pick.

Edge rushers are premium players, and Graham stands to earn more if he signs with a team that wants him as a 4-3 defensive end than with the Eagles, who will likely have an outside linebacker hole to fill.

Cole is slated to earn $10 million next season and won't be brought back at that number, if at all. He has played well this season, but he will be 33 in October and has only one more sack (61/2) and one fewer hurry (121/2) than the 26-year-old Graham, even though he has played nearly twice the amount of snaps.

The slow development of Marcus Smith - this year's top draft pick - also likely compelled the Eagles to initiate talks. Connor Barwin will certainly be back next season in the "Jack" outside linebacker spot, but Smith's future is cloudy, and the Eagles don't have other options.

Graham, meanwhile, is playing his cards correctly.

"Once you've been in it, I learned to love it, because at first it was hard," Graham said of playing outside linebacker. "I was just like, 'Man, is this really what I want to do?' And now that I've got it and I'm feeling good and stuff's starting to look good for me, I can definitely see myself being here."

But would the Eagles be willing to meet the market's demand for an edge rusher? There should be other notable free agents (Greg Hardy, Justin Houston, Cliff Avril, Jason Pierre-Paul), but Graham's worth should be higher in a 4-3 scheme, where he can predominantly rush.

Some compare Graham to Vikings end Everson Griffen, who signed a five-year, $42.5 million contract with $19.5 million guaranteed in March.

"A 4-3 end - pass rushing is what you do," Graham said. "You stop the run, go get the quarterback. Now [as a 3-4 outside linebacker], you stop the run, stop some passes, and go get the quarterback. You just never know when your name's going to get called to go get the quarterback.

"But I think a 4-3 end, it's better because you're always going that way. You're never backing up."

The Eagles have upped Graham's snap count by 12 percent this season partly because he has improved at setting the edge against the run and dropping into coverage. He has as many sacks (51/2) as Griffen had in 2013 despite having 42 percent fewer pass-rush chances.

Graham has 121/2 tackles for loss in 423 snaps while Griffen had seven last season in 717 snaps.

"We've been really happy with him," coach Chip Kelly said. "I think he's really dedicated himself."

Whether he stays or goes, Graham's dedication will pay off.

The other free agents

Aside from Brandon Graham, the Eagles have only six players who are eligible to become unrestricted free agents when the new NFL year begins March 10. Aside from Graham, there is likely only one they'll entertain keeping.

Jeremy Maclin. The wide receiver signed a one-year deal and is having a career season (78 catches for 1,207 yards and 10 touchdowns). Maclin said in February that he would be willing to negotiate an extension in-season, but it will likely have to wait for now. He's in search of No. 1-receiver money. Will the Eagles view him as such?

Mark Sanchez. Considering the one-year, $2.25 million contract Sanchez signed in March, the Eagles have gotten more than they could have asked for out of the backup quarterback. But faint hopes that he could be a long-term answer as a starter were dashed, as expected. Sanchez will likely go to a team where he can compete for a starting job.

Bradley Fletcher. The cornerback has had a rocky two-year stay in Philadelphia. The Eagles will likely move on, but they could bring counterpart Cary Williams back for the final year of his deal.

Nate Allen. The Eagles brought the safety back with the expectation that another year in the system would make him more reliable. It did not. It's difficult to see Allen back with Malcolm Jenkins at least bringing some consistency at safety.

Casey Matthews. The inside linebacker is fine as a bottom-of-the-roster special-teams contributor but has struggled since being thrust into a starting role. The Eagles will likely look to get younger, but he's got that Oregon thing going for him. Which is nice.

Brad Smith. The 31-year-old veteran receiver missed three games after groin surgery. He has played sparingly on offense and was partly responsible for Sunday's opening-kick muff. It would be a surprise if he returned.

Others. Defensive end Cedric Thornton and running back Chris Polk are restricted free agents, meaning the Eagles have the right of first refusal if either player signs an offer sheet with another team. If they don't match another offer, they get draft-pick compensation depending upon their original qualifying tender.

Jeff Maehl is an exclusive-rights free agent, and the Eagles have first dibs on retaining the receiver before he reaches the open market.

FIVE QUESTIONS: LANE JOHNSON

Question: If you were NFL commissioner, what would be the one thing you would change about the league?

Answer: Celebrations, where you can't dunk [the football over the crossbar]. I think it's part of the game. I think that's what fans like to see.

Q: What is your greatest fear?

A: Being alone.

Q: If you could have lunch with one person from any time period, dead or alive, who would it be, and why?

A: Probably Michael Jordan, to pick his brain on how he thought about the game, how he was a competitor, and try to learn something.

Q: Who wins a fight between a bear and a shark in five feet of water, and why?

A: I would think maybe a grizzly bear because he would be smart enough to attack and go back on the bank.

Q: If you could be any fictional character who would you choose?

A: Probably the Scarecrow from The Wizard of Oz.

INSIDE THE GAME

Zach Ertz has already surpassed his 2013 receiving statistics and is projected to have impressive numbers considering his percentage of playing time, but the second-year tight end won't come close to the preseason expectations of some observers.

He said he knew those projections - some thought 1,000 yards was within reach - weren't likely.

"I knew it wasn't going to be as high as everyone was projecting because . . . we're a one-tight end operation," Ertz said.

Generally, Brent Celek has been on the field on running downs and Ertz on passing downs. Ertz has 39 catches for 531 yards and three touchdowns playing 46 percent of offensive plays in 14 games. Last season as a rookie, he caught 36 passes for 469 yards and four touchdowns with 41 percent playing time.

Asked about next season, Ertz said he would continue to work on improving his blocking.

"I would like to be on the field every play, honestly. . . . Obviously, I want to be the No. 1 tight end, but I can't control that," Ertz said. "If it's close, I don't know who they're going to give it to - Brent or myself - but I'm focused on getting better every day."

Chip Kelly said that Brad Smith, as the up back, was at fault when Sunday's opening kickoff was turned over to the Cowboys. Josh Huff, who was back to return and credited with the muff, took the blame after the game.

But one thing is certain: Special-teams coach Dave Fipp warned his return unit that the kick would probably drop short of the end zone. NFL Films caught the moment, and it was shown on the game highlights on NFL.com.

"I think the ball will come down a little short," Fipp told his players, who were huddled, "and I think it will blow a little bit right to left."

The ball landed 15 yards short of the goal line, 2 yards to the right of Smith, who went to block instead. Huff, who said he'll continue to start games as the kick returner, paused as the ball fell to the turf.

"I [did] everything I could as far as communicating where the ball was going," Huff said Tuesday.

INSIDE THE LOCKER ROOM

It's rare when Jason Peters is at his locker stall during media availability. So when the left tackle was spotted Wednesday, it seemed appropriate to ask for his assessment of his season - his 11th in the NFL.

"I think I'm playing OK," Peters said. "I started 14 games so far. That's my goal - to just try and stay in there."

Peters has started 16 games only twice (2006 and 2013). If he starts in the Eagles' final two games, he would be the only starter on the offensive line to start all 16. With so many injuries, he said he spent a lot of the season assisting younger players, particularly right tackle Lane Johnson.

"Eventually, I'm [going] to hand the torch over to him, and he's going to have to play left," Peters said. "I've been working with him, showing him stuff that he can do on the right side that's going to help him in the future."

Peters may be the Eagles' only sure Pro Bowl bet when rosters are announced on Tuesday. It would be his seventh time and fifth since being traded to the Eagles in 2009. Asked to name tackles around the league he measures himself against, Peters said he looks more at Hall of Famers like Anthony Munoz and Walter Jones.

Some have started placing him in that company and believe he could eventually be elected into the Hall.

"It ain't really hit home. I just show up and play," Peters said. "When that time comes, it'll be overwhelming."

BY THE NUMBERS

24 - Turnovers by Eagles quarterbacks (Nick Foles, 13; Mark Sanchez, 11) this season, which is tied for most with the Bears (Jay Cutler, 24).

65.4 - Percentage improvement in sacks per pass attempt for the Eagles this season (9.13) vs. last (5.52). They rank second in the league; they were 31st last season.

340 - Projected number of touches for LeSean McCoy. The Eagles running back is on pace to have nearly the same carries this season as last (313 vs. 314) but will finish with significantly fewer catches (27 vs. 52).

@Jeff_McLane