Future Looks Good For Eagles Defense

With some time to reflect on what happened during the season, a look at the Eagles shows a lot of good things. In particular, the Eagles defense would seem to be poised to do some good things down the road.

Defensive coordinator Jim Johnson is hopeful that the healthy return of defensive end Jevon Kearse and the valuable year of experience gained by some of his young players will help improve a unit that allowed a much-too-generous 20.8 points per game this season.

"It's going to be nice to get Jevon back," said Johnson of his best defensive lineman, who went down in Week 2 with a season-ending knee injury. "And I think some guys have grown up. I think (right end) Trent Cole has grown up. (Strong safety) Sean Considine came through for us. So did (weak-side linebacker Omar) Gaither.

"We'll still make some adjustments with personnel. But I think some guys grew up and some guys got better. We'll see how it goes."

One guy who didn't grow up was rookie defensive tackle Brodrick Bunkley, the team's first-round pick. Johnson had hoped Bunkley would make an immediate impact as an inside pass-rusher and run-stuffer. But he seldom played. The Eagles can only hope the light goes on for him before next season.

The Eagles don't have any defensive starters who are free agents, but there are several key role players who are, including nickel corner Rod Hood, nickel linebacker Shawn Barber, defensive end Juqua Thomas and former starting strong safety Mike Lewis. The only one of those four likely to return is Barber. But he's 32 and can't be overused. The same goes for starting middle linebacker Jeremiah Trotter, whose knees are starting to betray him. He has become a liability in coverage and his range as a run-stopper is shrinking.

"Trot can't play too many plays," Johnson said. "He's getting up there in age and now, you've gotta kind of watch that."

Gaither did a nice job on the weak sideafter replacing Matt McCoy in the second half of the season. But strong-side linebacker Dhani Jones probably won't be back, though it remains to be seen who will replace him. The Eagles had hoped '06 third-round pick Chris Gocong, who had been a defensive end in college, would win the job last summer, but he got hurt and spent the season on injured reserve.

The Eagles must find a replacement for Hood if he leaves. They signed former Giants corner William James (formerly Will Peterson) at midseason, but injuries kept him sidelined for all but four games. He also is a free agent, but the team likely will try to re-sign him.

"We just need to go back to work and get better at what we do and continue to improve," said cornerback Sheldon Brown. "If it's not broke, don't fix it. I don't think it's broke. When it was, we had injuries."

On offense, the Eagles two top offseason re-signing priorities will be quarterback Jeff Garcia and wide receiver Donte Stallworth. The Eagles have indicated they want both of them back, but both likely will test the free agent market before making a decision on their futures.

Garcia did an outstanding job after replacing injured Donovan McNabb in the second half of the season. Stallworth averaged 19.1 yards per catch, and had a 75-yard touchdown reception in Saturday's 27-24 playoff loss to the New Orleans Saints.

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