JIM JOHNSON sat on a bench in the lobby of the NovaCare Complex and exhaled as his ninth draft as the Eagles' defensive coordinator became history.
The Eagles selected eight players this weekend, four of whom will report to Johnson in 2 weeks when the team conducts its first spring minicamp.
While Johnson had nice things
to say about all four, including second-round defensive end Victor Abiamiri ("I really like him. I'm going to call him Victor because I can't pronounce his last name.") and 6-4, 254-pound third-round linebacker Stewart Bradley ("Intriguing. We haven't had a guy that size in a while."), he acknowledged that you probably won't be seeing them much this season,
except on special-teams duty.
"I don't think we really had to draft anybody that's going to make a big difference right now, except for depth," Johnson said. "I think the key is last year's draft and [having] those guys stepping in. That's what's going to really help this defense get back to where it was."
For now, Johnson said, forget about Abiamiri and Bradley and the two defensive backs they drafted yesterday, C.J. Gaddis and Rashad Barksdale. Focus
instead on the four defensive players they selected in the
2006 draft - defensive tackles
Brodrick Bunkley and LaJuan
Ramsey and linebackers Chris
Gocong and Omar Gaither.
"Our draft last year is going to pay off for us this year," Johnson said. "Bunkley, Gocong, Omar, Ramsey . . . if those guys play like we think they're going to play, it's going to be a heck of a draft."
Gaither was the only one of those four who managed to make any kind of an impact as a rookie. The fifth-rounder from Tennessee started five games
at weakside linebacker.
Bunkley, the team's highly
touted first-rounder, spent most of his first NFL season on the bench. Gocong, a Division I-AA defensive end that the Eagles drafted with the intention of turning into a strongside linebacker, struggled to make the transition and ultimately spent the year on injured reserve. Ramsey dressed for just six games.
Bunkley is the biggest key to turning around a defense that gave up more than 17 points in
10 of 16 games last season and
finished 26th against the run. If he doesn't produce this season, the Eagles are in trouble. But Johnson is confident he will produce.
"I just see a kid who's working harder, who's more serious about it," he said. "He realizes he's got a lot to prove. You can see it in the way he's out there working with [defensive line coach] Pete Jenkins. You just see a different attitude in the kid than you saw last year. We're
going to slot him at right tackle and hopefully he'll perform. There's no reason he can't."
Johnson is just as hopeful that Gocong will be able to master the SAM (strongside) linebacker position. But he was hopeful of that a year ago, too, after the
Eagles selected the Cal Poly product in the third round.
"The thing about Chris, he's smart enough," he said. "And he's got a lot of natural linebacker
instincts about him. Now, he just needs to play. He's going to be
slotted in that SAM linebacker if he comes through. And I think he will. I have no doubt in my mind that he won't. But he's got to do it. Because he's really a good athlete out there. He's a very physical guy. He could be a good blitzer, too."
Gaither started the last five regular-season games and the Eagles' two playoff contests at WILL (weakside linebacker). But Johnson plans to put recently acquired Takeo Spikes there and move Gaither inside, where he'll be the middle linebacker in the Eagles' nickel package and
also push Jeremiah Trotter for the starting job.
"I like Omar as a MIKE [middle linebacker]," Johnson said.
"I think he can be a good MIKE linebacker in the future. He'll play a lot in our nickel like Shawn Barber did. We won't play Trotter every down. And
he'll keep pushing Trotter, too.
It'll be good competition."
Like much of the defense,
Trotter didn't play very well last season. His knees are starting to betray him and he can't play the number of snaps he has been playing. But Johnson said he still has the four-time Pro Bowler penciled in as the Eagles' starter in the middle "right now."
"We know he's getting up there in age," Johnson said. "He's got to watch his weight. He knows it. We've just got to keep his snaps down. He's a very physical player. He's a great person. He plays hard. He wants to compete. He knows he can play better [than last season], and we know he can play better. So we'll see."
In the secondary, Pro Bowl free safety Brian Dawkins will turn 34 in October, strong safety Sean Considine struggled against the run last season and their valuable nickel corner, Rod Hood, signed with Arizona.
The Eagles were expected to add a defensive back in the first round this weekend. But that never materialized. They ended up trading out of the first round and selecting quarterback Kevin Kolb with their No. 1 pick, the 36th overall. If Johnson was upset that he didn't get early-round help for his secondary, he didn't show it.
"Sean's got to get a little bit stronger, and I think he's working at it," the Eagles' defensive chief said. "He's much heavier right now. The key for him, he's got such good instincts, he's going to make plays. He just needs to get a little bit stronger as far as the run game and stuff like that.
"Dawk, I'm not going to worry about Dawk until I see him [not get the job done] on the field.
Every time I see him, I never see anything different. So, I'm not going to worry about his age right now. I don't see [any decline]."
Interestingly, Johnson thinks the key to the success of his
secondary this season will be cornerback William James. James, once one of the league's better young corners when he played for the Giants, injured his back 2 years ago and was released.
He signed with the Eagles last November, but played in just four of 10 games because of injuries. They re-signed him to a 1-year contract last month.
"I think the key is Will," Johnson said. "I think he's an
awfully good corner. If he can stay healthy, I'll feel very good about our corners. Because I like [Joselio] Hanson. I think he's a good fourth corner. Will being our third corner, he's a guy who can start. I feel good about those guys. But the key is making sure Will can stay healthy. When he played last year, he played well. We just didn't get enough out of him as far as being healthy on the field.
"If we're healthy, if Jevon [Kearse] comes back [from his knee injury] like I think he should, if Gocong can make that switch [to SAM], if Will James can stay healthy, if Bunkley can step it up, I'll feel really good [about the
defense]. There's a few ifs here and there. But that's the case every time you go into a season." *