A few weeks back, when reporters spoke with Eagles vice president Howie Roseman at the NFL Scouting combine about the team's pending free agents, they expected to hear how important Nigel Bradham was to the defense, how hard Roseman intended to fight to retain the Birds' top-tackling linebacker over the last two seasons.
Roseman agreed that day that "Nigel is a tremendous player," but he didn't say a word about trying to bring him back. In fact, Roseman closed his answer to the question about Bradham with: "We're not going to just be an empty vault for any of our players right now. We just don't have that flexibility."
This helped form a narrative, as Wednesday's 4 p.m. official start of free agency approached, that the cap-strapped Eagles weren't going to be able to retain Bradham, that they would have to patch and fill at what is generally considered the Super Bowl champs' weakest position.
But Bradham, who spoke in the NovaCare auditorium Thursday after signing a five-year, reported $40 million deal to remain an Eagle, had reason to think he'd be staying – though as the hours and days ticked by, he became less certain.
"It came to the last day. Obviously, I was nervous about it, but I'm fortunate that I was able to be able to stay here and come back here – we've built so much here, and the chemistry of what we have and what we share in the locker room between us and the coaches and the whole organization, honestly – we all enjoy each other," Bradham said.
"For me, it's rare that guys get that close [to leaving] and be able to come back to their team, so I'm very fortunate and thankful that I was able to do that."
Bradham said he kept remembering what Roseman told him right after the Super Bowl.
"Howie told me that [Bradham was his top free-agent priority], himself, during the exit meeting. I just kept confidence in him … trusting him. He's a man of his word, he's always been a man of his word. When he tells you something, he means it. He told me he wanted me back, and I was a top priority, and he was going to do everything in his power to bring me back. And you saw it.
"You probably didn't see it before, a lot of people probably thought I was gone, because there wasn't a lot of buzz for me to stay around and keep me here, just because you didn't hear the reports. But he told me that, face-to-face, and I just kept my confidence in him, and it worked out perfectly."
When the "legal tampering" period two days before free agency began, Bradham said a few other teams got involved, but he didn't want to give details. Once the deal was done – with mere hours to spare before the start of the swap meet – the Eagles released a statement that "keeping him here was a priority of ours."
The Eagles found ways to win games without a lot of key players during their remarkable, historic 2017 season. They won without quarterback Carson Wentz, left tackle Jason Peters, standout middle linebacker Jordan Hicks, running back/returner Darren Sproles – but they didn't win any games without Bradham, who sat out only the meaningless regular season-ending loss to Dallas.
He took on the role of signal-caller after Hicks went down in Game 7. Bradham covered receivers, stopped the run with force, was an intimidating hitter. Few players, if any, more completely embodied the spirit of defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz. Losing Bradham would have left a gaping hole in Schwartz's unit.
"It factored, obviously," Bradham said, when asked about the influence of his relationship with Schwartz on his outlook toward leaving. "It was a tough decision. Once you get down to it and you get close to that market, things get a little tougher as far as decision-making … he brought me here in the first place, and for me, having the opportunity to stay with him for some time is going to be amazing."
Bradham, 28, first played for Schwartz with Buffalo in 2014, was reunited with him when the Eagles signed Bradham to a two-year deal in 2016. Their relationship, he said, has "continued to grow, each and every year, from the time I met him … You kind of want to say father-son relationship, but not so much, because I feel like we're kinda best friends at the same time. It's something that's special and unique. You obviously don't get that from each and every defensive coordinator. I've been with my share."
It's pretty clear where the Eagles are headed at linebacker, assuming Hicks, recovering from a torn Achilles, can stay healthy in 2018. He and Bradham are the focal points, with former Denver sub Corey Nelson, who stood at the NovaCare lectern just after Bradham on Thursday, presumably taking over for Mychal Kendricks at WIL. Trading or releasing Kendricks would clear $4.4 million worth of cap space.
It didn't escape notice that Bradham talked about Hicks Thursday, but not Kendricks.
"Anytime me and Jordan are together on the field, it's special," Bradham said. "The playmaking ability of what we can do, our communication, our chemistry, we just work together very well. We intend on playing together for some time, a long time. 'Cuz it's us. We're the leaders of this defense, and we take control of it."
It was a busy afternoon at NovaCare, with the Eagles also making official their signing of veteran defensive tackle Haloti Ngata to a one-year, reported $3 million deal. Ngata joins Nelson and former Seattle star Michael Bennett as newcomers on what was already an imposing defensive front seven, with the Eagles losing free agent DT Beau Allen to Tampa.
Bradham was enthusiastic about the additions.