Rookies know their place in the Eagles training camp lunchroom. Established veterans usually gather at the same few tables every day--no rookies allowed--and Sheldon Brown and Lito Sheppard remember what it was like to watch those older players from afar in 2002, when they were eager, wide-eyed first-year cornerbacks. They'd peer across the room at quarterback Donovan McNabb, free safety Brian Dawkins and cornerback Troy Vincent, all Pro Bowl players whom the young guys looked up to. "We'd sit there and think about all those big-name guys," Sheppard says, "and we'd say to ourselves, How can we make it to that table?"
Brown and Sheppard are no longer dreaming. They not only eat with the big boys but also are expected to produce like the men they once admired from afar. Both players will be starters this season, replacing Vincent and fellow corner Bobby Taylor, who left Philadelphia as free agents. It's a huge challenge. Over the last eight seasons Taylor and Vincent formed one of the league's best pass-coverage tandems, combining for 47 interceptions.
But this transition in the Eagles' secondary was inevitable. Impressed with the athleticism and composure of the two young corners, Philly selected Sheppard in the first round of the 2002 draft and then picked Brown in the second. The only knock against them--and they bristle whenever they hear it--is their size: Brown and Sheppard are 5'10" and just short of 200 pounds, a noticeable drop in size from Taylor (6'3", 216) and Vincent (6'1", 200). "When we drafted these guys, we knew they could run, cover and play with a lot of toughness," says defensive coordinator Jim Johnson. "We realize they're not the biggest corners in the NFL, but they've made plays the last two years. Every once in a while a tall receiver will jump [over them] for a catch, but they're good enough athletes that they'll prevent some of those catches as well."
Also, Brown and Sheppard unexpectedly picked up valuable playing time last season when injuries to Taylor and Vincent forced Brown into the starting lineup for nine games and Sheppard for three. Brown, the more accomplished of the two young defensive backs, played in nickel and dime situations as a rookie. Over the past two seasons both players showed their maturity by not getting flustered after making mistakes.
Keeping their cool and executing their assignments is crucial in Philadelphia's aggressive, blitzing defense. Johnson says he will not go to more conservative schemes because Brown and Sheppard are in the lineup. The coordinator thinks both players have the speed to be outstanding blitz corners, and notes that they will have plenty of help around them. The addition of free-agent defensive end Jevon Kearse bolsters a pass rush that produced a modest 38 sacks in 2003, and Dawkins, a three-time Pro Bowler, remains the heart of the secondary. "Coach Johnson doesn't put his corners in positions to lose games," Brown says. "Bobby Taylor and Troy Vincent are great players, but they also knew they had Brian Dawkins and [strong safety] Michael Lewis playing over the top a lot. And whenever I know I have those guys back there, I'm going to be gambling."
Serving as understudies to Taylor and Vincent was a great advantage for Brown and Sheppard. They learned how to study quarterbacks and receivers, read their routes and spot their tendencies. Defensive tackle Corey Simon says, "Every time you saw those guys--whether it was on the field or in the meeting room--they were sitting next to Bobby and Troy, asking them a bunch of questions about the game. They really picked their brains."
They still do. Though he's now with the Bills, Vincent calls Brown and Sheppard regularly. One morning during training camp Brown answered his phone, and it was Vincent asking all the usual questions, such as how Brown was playing and if he was being physical with receivers. But before hanging up, Vincent also reminded his protégé that this is Brown's time to earn respect around the league. "Lito and I are carrying on what Bobby and Troy started here, and I think people will be impressed by how we play," Brown says. "We don't want to talk about what we're going to do. We're just going to show it on the field." --Jeffri Chadiha
PLAYER ON THE RISE
> Second-year tight end L.J. SMITH has great hands and quickness, runs crisp routes, has the speed to get past linebackers and the size (6'3", 258) to muscle safeties. He's behind three-time Pro Bowler Chad Lewis, but he will get his chances. The Eagles like two tight end sets, and Terrell Owens will open up pass-catching opportunities over the middle.
ENEMY LINES An opposing scout's view
Donovan McNabb is a top five quarterback in leadership, ability and performance, but they've really limited him. He's not the running threat he was earlier in his career, and he doesn't pick defenses apart. Quarterbacks in the West Coast offense should be throwing for high completion percentages, and he doesn't.... Brian Westbrook is good when he's healthy; he'll catch the ball out of the backfield and make big plays. Anytime you have a receiver like Terrell Owens, who has great ability downfield, it makes a guy like Westbrook more dangerous when quarterbacks check down to him.... Owens will make a lot of other guys better. Defenses are going to roll their coverage to him, and that's going to create more one-on-one matchups for Todd Pinkston and Freddie Mitchell.... Jevon Kearse has to prove he can stay healthy, but as far as talent, there aren't many guys at that position with more of it.... I don't think linebacker is a strength for them, but Jeremiah Trotter should help.... Free safety Brian Dawkins is a great player with real good instincts. When teams play the Eagles, he's the first guy they talk about. They want to know how they can avoid him.
"Brian Dawkins is a great player. When teams play the Eagles, he's the first guy they talk about."
PROJECTED STARTING LINEUP with 2003 statistics
2003 RECORD: 12-4
NFL RANK (rush/pass/total):
COACH: Andy Reid; sixth season with Philadelphia (51-29 in NFL)
(R) Rookie (statistics for final college year)
PVR: Player Value Ranking (explanation on page 172)
12 N.Y. GIANTS
20 MINNESOTA (M)
26 at Detroit
3 at Chicago
10 Open date
7 at Pittsburgh
15 at Dallas(M)
28 at N.Y. Giants
5 GREEN BAY
12 at Washington
27 at St. Louis(M)
Opponents' 2003 winning percentage: .473
Games against playoff teams: 7