Lawlor: Interesting themes with pre-free agency contract extensions

The focus of offseason activity is signing free agents, making trades, and drafting rookies. Re-signing your own players can be just as important, sometimes even more critical.

With that in mind, the Eagles' offseason is off to a good start.

The team re-signed defensive end Brandon Graham to a three-year extension. They also signed offensive linemen Jason Kelce and Isaac Seumalo to contract extensions.

I wasn't sure the Eagles would be able to keep Graham. Pass rushers are a coveted commodity in the NFL. If Graham hit the market, he might have had several suitors bidding against each other. That would have driven up his price tag.

Instead, the Eagles and Graham worked out a deal that was fair to both sides. He gets well paid, but the Eagles don't have to break the bank to keep him. Graham wanted to stay, and the Eagles wanted to keep him around, so this is one of those situations where everyone came out a winner.

If there is a theme to Graham's career, it is perseverance. He was drafted 13th overall back in 2010. I remember him playing a lot in his NFL debut, which came against the Packers. He got pressure on quarterback Aaron Rodgers and showed a lot of promise.

Unfortunately, Graham hurt his knee late in his rookie season. He didn't play much in 2011. Graham was healthy in 2012, but didn't play a whole lot because the defensive line coach preferred veteran players. Graham did start in six games and had 5.5 sacks, once again showing real promise.

Chip Kelly was hired in the offseason and brought the 3-4 defense to Philly. That meant Graham had to move from defensive end to linebacker. Every time things looked good for Graham, something else beyond his control would happen.

This put tremendous pressure on Graham. He was being compared to other players from his draft class. Jason Pierre-Paul was a standout pass rusher for the Giants. Earl Thomas was a ballhawking free safety for the Seahawks. Graham's critics pointed out that the Eagles could have had either one of them instead of Graham. At the time, both were better players.

It would have been easy for a young player to get down on himself or to become incredibly frustrated with the tough circumstances that seemed to plague him. Instead, Graham just kept grinding away. He embraced the move to linebacker.

Graham struggled in 2013 but kept working at the transition. He was a key backup in 2014 and then started 10 games in 2015. He had 12 sacks and seven forced fumbles over the two seasons. The Eagles signed him to an extension and life was pretty good.

Things got even better in 2016 when Doug Pederson was hired and brought back the 4-3 defense. Graham has been a fixture since moving back to end. He only missed one start and that's when the team rested its starters in the 2017 regular-season finale.

Graham doesn't post gaudy sack numbers, but he has become one of the best pass rushers in the league. He generates consistent pressure and is one of the most disruptive defensive ends in the game. Graham is also an outstanding run defender. He can set the edge if you try to run at him and chase plays down when you run away from him.

It would have been tough to see Graham playing for any other team. He is part of one of the greatest moments in Eagles history, with his strip-sack of Tom Brady in the Super Bowl. He is a big reason the Eagles won their first Lombardi Trophy.

The Eagles feel that Graham can continue to play at a high level. He will turn 31 this spring, but Graham will be a young 31, in football terms. He's only started 70 career games. Those early seasons of being a backup will add years on the back end of his career.

As for Kelce, he wasn't a free agent, but the Eagles wanted to make sure they kept him around in the future. He has become the best center in the NFL. Anytime you have someone who is the best at what they do, you want to keep that person as long as possible.

There was some speculation that Kelce might consider retirement. He's played a lot of football since being a sixth-round pick in 2011. Kelce has started 110 games and he will turn 32 in the upcoming season. After some time to rest and regroup, Kelce decided he wanted to keep playing. We can only hope he'll get to give another legendary speech.

The Eagles have had high hopes for Seumalo since drafting him in 2016. He was up and down for the first couple of years before starting nine games in 2018 and playing the best football of his career. Seumalo is a player on the rise, exactly the type of young player you want to sign to an extension.

Seumalo's best asset is his versatility. He can play all five positions on the offensive line. He has found a home at left guard, but he can be plugged in anywhere when an injury throws the line into chaos.

It is interesting that both Graham and Kelce overcame knee injuries early in their careers. Both guys understand the ups and downs of life in the NFL. Things are not always going to go according to plan. You must be able to battle through the problems that come your way. Seumalo lost his starting job early in 2017, but kept working and got the job back in 2018. He also understands dealing with adversity.

Graham and Kelce are both high-character players and team leaders. These are absolutely the kinds of people you want to keep on your team. Character and chemistry have been major factors in the Eagles' success over the past two seasons. Having the right people on your team makes a difference.

It is also interesting that the Eagles gave extensions to linemen. Howie Roseman and Doug Pederson are huge believers in building up the line of scrimmage on both sides of the ball. If there is a place to spend big money, it is on the lines. That really is the core of your team.

The whole point in making good draft picks is to keep those players around. The Eagles have done that with Graham, Kelce, and Seumalo. Build from within as much as possible. A week from now, we'll be talking about moves the Eagles have made involving players from other teams. That should be fun as well.

Tommy Lawlor, goeagles99 on the Eagles Message Boards, is an amateur football scout and devoted Eagles fan. You can also find his work at IgglesBlitz.com where he is the site's editor.

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