THE OFFSEASON addition of

Takeo Spikes

and the subtractions of

Dhani Jones

and

Darwin Walker

means the Eagles will open the season with at least three new defensive starters.

Spikes has been penciled in at weakside linebacker. Chris Gocong is the front-runner to replace Jones on the strong side, and assuming he doesn't get lost on the way to Lehigh, 2006 first-round pick Brodrick Bunkley will be Walker's starting replacement at right defensive tackle.

But don't discount the possibility of that list of new starters growing by two before the Eagles check into their hotel in Green Bay for the Sept. 9 season opener against the Packers.

While defensive coordinator Jim Johnson said the other day that Jeremiah Trotter still is the team's starting middle linebacker, his inclusion of the words "right now" made it clear the four-time Pro Bowler is going to have to prove this summer that he still deserves the job.

With Spikes taking over at WILL, second-year man Omar Gaither, who did a solid job there after replacing Matt McCoy in early December, will move back to the middle. Johnson said

Gaither will be the team's MIKE linebacker in its nickel package, but also will be given a shot at beating Trotter out for the starting job.

Then there's the right cornerback position. Right now, that job belongs to Sheldon Brown, who has been the starter there the last three seasons. But keep your eye on William James, who is gaining ground on the outside.

Johnson is very high on James, a former Giant who was one of the league's better young corners before injuring his back 2 years ago. He called him the key to his secondary the other day. Not "a" key. "The" key.

Right now, James, who signed with the Eagles last November but played in just four of 10 games because of injuries, is listed as the team's third corner behind Brown and Lito Sheppard.

But Johnson has told both Brown and James, who signed a new 1-year deal with the Eagles in March, that this is going to be a may-the-best-man-win situation this year.

"William is a guy who can start," Johnson said. "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."

Asked whether James will be given an opportunity to beat out Brown this summer, Johnson said, "I think [James] is a starting [quality] cornerback. Anytime you get that kind of competition, sure, he's going to push the other guy.

"But Sheldon's a good corner. We expect Sheldon to have a good year. But the best players are going to play.''

Brown has had his ups and downs the last two seasons. Johnson moves him inside on passing downs and he has been very effective in that role, but he doesn't seem to be nearly as confident on the outside.

There has been speculation that the Eagles might consider moving him to safety at some point in the future, perhaps after Brian Dawkins retires. Last year, Johnson often had him playing deep in some of his coverage schemes. While he's only 5-10, Brown is solidly built and can deliver a good blow, as Saints running back Reggie Bush found out in the playoffs.

"I haven't thought that far down the road," Johnson said.

"I still think he has good corner ability right now. He might not be able to make that transition. A year down the road, maybe I'll think about it. Right now, I'm not thinking about it."

Around the league

* There was a lot of predraft speculation that the league's tougher new personal-conduct policy, which gives commissioner Roger Goodell  leeway to punish teams for the bad behavior of their players, would cause clubs to steer away from players with "character" issues. But that didn't really happen. Some guys slid a little bit because of off-the-field problems, but no more than they would have in past years. University of Miami safety Brandon Meriweather (gun incident, game brawl), who was selected by the Patriots with the 24th overall pick, went right about where most teams had him rated. UNLV's Eric Wright (2004 arrest for suspicion of rape; no charges filed), perhaps the draft's best corner, slid into the second round where he was taken by the Browns.

Florida defensive tackle Marcus Thomas (marijuana issues, thrown off team) was selected by the Broncos in the fourth round after talk he wouldn't get drafted at all. And North Carolina State defensive tackle DeMarcus Tyler (assaulting a police officer, allegedly spitting at a ref during a game) went in the third round to the Chiefs, about a round later than he would have if he had been a choirboy.

* The Chiefs are bracing for a training-camp holdout by running back Larry Johnson. Johnson, who has rushed for 3,539 yards and 37 touchdowns the last two seasons, has 3 years left on the deal he signed as a rookie in 2003. He is scheduled to make $1.85 million this year and $967,000 next year. The Chiefs have been talking to Johnson's agent about a new deal, but the two sides still are far apart. A club source put the odds of Johnson holding out this summer at 50-50. Johnson, who owns a home in New York with rapper Jay-Z, showed up in Kansas City Sunday for the first time since the team began its voluntary workouts last month and has worked out with his teammates the last 2 days. He has indicated that he will attend the team's postdraft minicamp in 2 weeks.

* Greg Olsen, the University of Miami tight end who was taken by the Bears with the 31st pick in the first round, is taking heat in Chicago for something stupid he did 3 years ago. His freshman year at the U, he and several dorm mates, some players, some not, recorded a raunchy rap song called "7th Floor Crew." The song contains graphic descriptions of lewd sex acts and features a heavy dose of the F-word, the B-word and the ho-word. Not something you really want to be associated with in this post-Don Imus climate. The song surfaced 2 years ago on the Internet and caused enough of a stir to prompt Miami athletic director Paul Dee to issue an apology. Now, much to Olsen's chagrin, the whole thing is become big news in Chicago (ain't Googling great?). "As a freshman, a few of my friends and I recorded a song that was written for us," Olsen said in a statement issued through the Bears. "It was an immature mistake on my part, and I certainly recognize it was wrong. I am not proud of what we did and have become a more mature person over the past 3 years."

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