During the 8 days of this Eagles minicamp that started Tuesday, coach Andy Reid and his staff will implement some new schemes on both sides of the ball and evaluate the talent on hand, both the new players and the incumbents.

The coaches aren't the only ones doing the evaluating, however. The players also are taking notice of each other, both on and off the field.

"Everybody is going to size each other up," defensive end Trent Cole said. "Everyone checks out who was lifting and who wasn't lifting at all [during the offseason]. So far, he is the eye-opener."

Cole nodded toward the locker next to his, occupied by defensive end Darren Howard. Funny how moments earlier, Howard, who is entering his ninth pro season and third with the Eagles after leaving New Orleans via free agency, had to exchange the T-shirt he was given (an XXL) by the team to wear to a playground dedication because of the tight fit. "Too big up here, anymore," he said, flexing his upper body. He is now a chiseled 255 pounds, about 15 lighter than last year's playing weight.

Howard, by his own admission, is coming off a disappointing season in which he registered just one sack and was, at times, watching more than playing. His offseason dedication to revamping his body isn't so much for fear of losing his job, he says, but a challenge to himself.

"It's something I go through every offseason and I always said I was going to do this," Howard, 31, said following the team's nearly 2-hour workout yesterday on the slippery grass at the NovaCare Complex. "I've always wanted to change my body around and work a little bit harder [in the offseason], try to get a little more muscle on my frame. This year I just happened to do it. I don't know if there was a particular reason.

"It happens that we're on a team where a lot of the defensive ends are 250 to 260, so I don't have to be big. In New Orleans, we had ends who were 280, 290. So I don't have to be that big here and the team is partial to smaller ends. I figured if I could do it, I could do it now."

As much as he might disregard it, there is an ample amount of defensive-line players vying for roster spots. But Howard is no dummy. He is certainly well aware of the team signing speedy Chris Clemons from the Raiders and adding through the last two drafts Victor Abiamiri and Bryan Smith, to go along with starters Cole and Juqua Parker (formerly Juqua Thomas). And he must know full well that he is entering the third year of a 6-year, $30 million contract ($10.5 million guaranteed) on a team that is very cap-conscious.

"I've never been in a position where I feel like I had to try out to make a team before, and that includes Little League," Howard said, when asked if that's what it feels like for him now. "I don't know what that feels like. I don't know how to go about that. To me, it's all about getting better and not being satisfied with what my production was last year. Basically I set goals for myself, to help make the team better."

And, according to Cole, Howard has done that already, regardless of what he is doing on the field during these workouts.

"He's totally changed himself," Cole said. "He's such a hard worker. Darren ain't the Darren who came in here before. He's a totally new person. He chose to take a new approach to the game. He came in shape, he's staying in shape. He's always in the weight room.

"He's doing everything. He's watching his weight, he's eating right. Things that I wish I could do, he's doing. I'm going to take after that and hope that other people take after that, too. Him doing that, that's being a leader. People ask him, 'What did you do?' He did it the right way and the legal way. It's appreciated when you see somebody accomplish that. When you're working out, it's hard to keep that going, especially in the offseason when you're alone. It's something guys can look up to."

The offseason training at his home in Tampa varied. "I played a lot of basketball, did some boxing and a lot more weight training," Howard said. "The workouts were hard at first, especially the first couple of weeks. But when I got back here, I realized how hard I worked because [practice] was easier."

And the easier it is for him, the harder it will be for the Eagles' bigwigs to entertain any thoughts of parting ways with Howard. *