IF CHRIS GOCONG can emerge this year as a starting-quality linebacker, the Eagles might not need to address that position in this weekend's NFL draft.

But the Birds can't really gauge Gocong's readiness until minicamps and training camp. Where in the draft to look for a linebacker, or whether to look for a linebacker, might be their toughest call this weekend.

Gocong would like to make it easier for them.

"My goal is to be the starting SAM [strongside]," Gocong said recently after a workout at the NovaCare Complex. "I'm looking forward to seeing what they're going to do, so we know what's going on in the future."

When they selected Gocong in the third round from Division I-AA Cal Poly a year ago, the Eagles thought they'd have a much better fix on how he fits in by now. But Gocong, transitioning from defensive end in college, got off to a tentative, slow start in training camp, then was dogged by a neck injury that led to him being placed in injured reserve. He never played a snap, even in the preseason.

Obviously, this was difficult for Gocong, healthy by midseason, who noted recently that it was "not like I had some huge, visible injury."

"I almost wished I'd had one - then I would have had something to show for not being able to play," he said. "It was real frustrating, kind of like a redshirt year. But I think I made the best use of my time," attending meetings and learning the nuances of the Eagles' defense.

This offseason, it has been hard to get a fix on what the Eagles think about Gocong. They seem to envision him challenging the much-lampooned Dhani Jones at the SAM; the big offseason acquisition, Takeo Spikes, is working out at WIL, or weakside linebacker, for now. But defensive coordinator Jim Johnson also has talked about moving Gocong back to defensive end.

Gocong's perception is that it is up to him to show the coaching staff very quickly, when minicamps begin next month, that he is now a linebacker. Otherwise, he thinks he could get tossed into the jumbled picture at defensive end, where his route to playing time would be less clear.

General manager Tom Heckert said recently that Gocong's perception is accurate - it will be up to Gocong to convince the Birds he can be a linebacker. Heckert said Gocong, 6-2, 258, will get every chance to do that, but "we know he can play defensive end," where Gocong set a I-AA record with 23 1/2 sacks in 2005.

It's probably fair to say that if the Eagles draft an inside linebacker anywhere in the first three rounds Saturday, Gocong will face an uphill fight to avoid playing with one hand in the dirt. Even though the linebacking corps might have been the team's most disappointing unit last season, and even though Spikes and middle linebacker Jeremiah Trotter have hit 30, the Birds have quite a few LBs under contract.

Right now, the starters would seem to be Trotter in the middle, challenged or complemented by promising Omar Gaither, Spikes at WIL, backed up by Matt McCoy, and Jones and Gocong at SAM, with former practice-squad members Tank Daniels, Dedrick Roper and Greg Richmond lurking on the fringes. Indications are that Daniels will be given every opportunity to win a spot. So if you draft a linebacker, somebody must go.

As every Eagles fan knows, finding linebackers who are a good fit for Johnson's defense has been a tricky pursuit. In addition to the litany of failed second-round draft picks (Barry Gardner in 1999, Quinton Caver in 2001, very possibly McCoy in 2005), there are the veterans the Eagles have brought in who haven't been everything they'd hoped. That list includes Nate Wayne, Mark Simoneau, Jones, and even Keith Adams, who played well as a backup, but was a disappointment as a starter.

One factor in all that transience is how the Eagles traditionally have seen linebackers - as less crucial than, say, defensive ends or corners, who tend to get drafted in the first round. Yes, this is the point in the story where we insert the obligatory reference to Jerry Robinson, the last linebacker the Eagles tabbed in the first round, in 1979.

"The positions we have drafted [in the first round] are the positions we feel are really tough to find," Heckert said. "Especially the offensive tackles, the defensive ends, even to a certain extent defensive tackles. Linebackers, in theory . . . the first-round guys might be solid players, but they're not impact players. I don't know if you need all that."

Heckert said the Eagles certainly are open to taking a linebacker when they make their first selection Saturday, 26th overall. That might be right around where Penn State star Paul Posluszny ends up going. Heckert has said only that he thinks Posluszny will be drafted somewhere in the first round. Florida State's Lawrence Timmons probably won't last that long, but Miami's versatile Jon Beason might. If the Birds opt for a linebacker much later in the draft, an interesting possibility is Zak DeOssie, son of former NFL linebacker and long-snapper Steve DeOssie. Zak DeOssie, from Brown, is a middling linebacking prospect but a highly regarded long-snapper, which could interest the Eagles now that it seems Mike Bartrum is retired. That might depend on how they view Jon Dorenbos, whom they signed as Bartrum's emergency injury replacement last season.

Heckert said he doesn't think there is anything about Johnson's defense that is particularly difficult for linebackers. Gocong has a different perception, perhaps because his background is at DE.

"It's just a large volume of things [to keep track of] - it's not really things that are so complicated, it's just high volume," Gocong said. "Especially transitioning from defensive end, it's kind of tough, because you never think about coverages or anything, it's just, 'Go get the quarterback,' 'Go get the ballcarrier.' "

Gocong saw Gaither take over McCoy's starting weakside spot at midseason, McCoy having worn down in the wake of a shoulder injury. Gaither, a fifth-round rookie, ended up being the Eagles' highest-profile first-year player. Obviously, Gocong wished he'd had that chance.

"Definitely. I was watching [even] the kickoff and punt teams, thinking I could be out there hitting people. It kills you; you can't do that every play. It's a long season. I had to stop myself, because it was just hurting me," Gocong said.

Gocong said this has turned into a long offseason already, since his season was pretty much offseason, as well. He's very anxious to see where he ends up. Asked whether he would be more comfortable at end, he said he might be, at first, because he played there so much in college. But he said he would be very disappointed.

"I want to say my role in this defense is at linebacker," Gocong said. *