JIM JOHNSON would like to have Lito Sheppard here for the Eagles' voluntary workouts that continue through next Thursday. Johnson can't work on the ideas he has for playing his three premier cornerbacks together unless he has them, well, together.
But that glitch aside, the Birds' 67-year-old defensive coordinator is about as happy as he ever gets this time of year, when there's no hitting and the players are running around in shorts.
"I don't think we've ever had this much depth at defensive end," Johnson said yesterday. "Between having Victor [Abiamiri] coming around, and J.P. [Juqua Parker, who used to be Juqua Thomas], and [Darren] Howard, and Trent Cole, and all of a sudden you add Chris Clemons, young guys, Bryan Smith. Right now we're working Chris Clemons in with that first-team nickel quite a bit, and we'll see how it goes after that. But there's a lot of good players out there, and a lot of good defensive ends."
Cole, a Pro Bowler last season, will start again on the right side. Parker remains the left-side starter, at least for now, but he is going to have to really fight for snaps, if the rotation shapes up like Johnson envisions. The biggest threat - literally and figuratively - might be Abiamiri, last year's second-round rookie from Notre Dame, who played in just six games and recorded just seven tackles.
Abiamiri, a chiseled 6-4, 267, is the Eagles' biggest defensive end. His problem getting on the field last season was one we've seen before, most recently with 2006 first-round defensive tackle Brodrick Bunkley - not a lack of talent, necessarily, but a lack of being comfortable in Johnson's complex, demanding defense.
"He's a different person," said Johnson, who noted that Abiamiri started to come on late in the 2007 season, playing in the last three games, all of which the Birds won. "He plays with a lot of confidence and he knows the defense. He's going to be on the field quite a bit."
Abiamiri said yesterday he needed to learn a lot of technique - primarily pass-rush stuff about how you use your hands, how you set your feet - coming out of college. He said he needed to sit through a season, then get an offseason like this one in order to put it all together.
"You've got to be flexible," Abiamiri said. "There's a lot of different things Jim throws at you to keep the offense off-balance, and you've got to be adaptable and versatile. The more things you can do, the better you'll find a way to get on the field . . . This was my first offseason. Things are really slowed down, a lot. You can have a chance to really concentrate on the little things. During the season, there's not a lot of time to work on one thing in particular."
Johnson tends to collect undersized, speedy pass rushers at end - Smith, the third-round rookie from McNeese State, is an extreme example, at 6-2, 241. Abiamiri's size and strength set him apart.
"I think he's an excellent first- and second-down run player," Johnson said. "I think he's a physical guy, but he's also getting better on his pass rush. I could see him a lot on first and second down, and rotating some other guys, and sometimes even playing tackle in the nickel. He'll be a versatile guy, no question about it."
How will it all shake out at defensive end? Well, fans keep thinking Howard will be cut, but for now his ability to move inside, where the tackle rotation is less set, and his newfound devotion to conditioning might keep him in the running. Johnson indicated yesterday that Smith might be more of a long-term project, because "he has a lot of good people ahead of him." Cole, Clemons, Parker and Abiamiri figure to get the bulk of the snaps, with Clemons' ability to play linebacker sometimes making him a pass-rusher from that spot - Johnson again dropped tantalizing hints about mixing in a 3-4 look, which presumably could put, say, Clemons on the field with two other defensive ends, a tackle and three "other" linebackers. Johnson never even mentioned Jerome McDougle, who is still here, after all these years, at least for these workouts.
Obviously, if the front office went out and got disaffected Jason Taylor from Miami, Johnson would find snaps for him, but right now it's hard to see the Birds making a big move for another defensive end. They really ought to be OK there.
Overall, the biggest question about the Birds' defense this season figures to be how the Sheppard situation is resolved. Though team president Joe Banner said Wednesday that Sheppard will be with the Eagles this season, that no trade is on the horizon, Sheppard's absence from these workouts clearly indicates his continuing displeasure.
"I wish he was here," Johnson said. "I think it hurts anybody, not being here."
Sheppard doesn't like the contract extension he signed in 2004, which runs through 2011. Now that the Eagles have signed free agent Asante Samuel and handed him Sheppard's left-corner spot, Sheppard and Sheldon Brown will fight it out for the right-side starting job. Johnson indicated Sheppard would be on the right and Brown would be inside in nickel packages - but he can't be sure of that until he knows he has Sheppard. Theoretically, Sheppard could boycott training camp and the season, hoping to force a trade, though Sheppard's friends have said they expect to see him at Lehigh when veterans are scheduled to report on July 24.
Johnson said he is preparing for both possibilities.
"We have a plan if Lito is going to be here, certain packages we're going to have," Johnson said. "If he's not, we might not do that package quite as much."
said nothing is wrong with
's shoulder. McNabb's passes seemed to have more zip yesterday than on Wednesday, when wideout
said McNabb had a little soreness. "He really had a good day today," Mornhinweg said of McNabb. "He really threw the ball well . . . He was impressive today" . . . You get the sense that, intricacies of the West Coast offense aside, the Birds are going to get wideout
on the field as a rookie because, as Mornhinweg noted yesterday, "He does have a really high skill and ability set." Jackson and cornerback
, who suffered hamstring tweaks on Wednesday, observed yesterday's workout but did not participate . . . Running back
was given the day off to attend to a personal matter, the team said. *